Act now to avoid potential dangers associated with solitary living, such as coronary artery disease, stroke, and thinking skills decline.
One lovely picture of older age is of smiling seniors enjoying their golden years with partners, friends, and family. In reality, many seniors are isolated and lonely. The National Council on Aging reports that one in six adults ages 65 or older is isolated, either socially or geographically. And in a 2010 AARP survey, 25% of respondents ages 70 or older said they felt lonely.
As we reported in July, loneliness and isolation are associated with a 29% higher risk of coronary artery disease and a 32% higher risk of having a stroke. A recent study from Harvard researchers suggested that thinking skills declined about 20% faster over 12 years in the loneliest people in the study compared with study participants who reported that they were not lonely. And a 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who identified themselves as lonely were 59% more likely to lose the ability to perform tasks of daily living and 45% more likely to die early than those who didn't identify as lonely. Other studies have associated loneliness with depression and high blood pressure. None of the studies has proved conclusively that loneliness causes health problems, but researchers continue to find associations between the two.
What's the link? Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry, points to several factors. "We do better physically when we're part of a community," he says. "We are social animals who have evolved to do best when we're engaged with others. Also, when we're with friends and family, we benefit from ‘social contagion,' where you pick up on what others are doing for health, or others encourage you to do something about your health."
Dr. Miller also points out that loneliness can lead to depression, which is associated with health problems.
Simple steps to connect
Fighting back against loneliness and isolation takes planning and effort. Consider the following strategies.
1. Reach out to family and friends, even if it's just with a phone call or a video call (using a computer program or smartphone app to actually see the person you're talking with). "Virtual connections are still connections," says Dr. Miller. "Even a quick text or seeing someone's face on a screen can improve your well-being." Make contact with someone a regular part of your day, like taking medicine or exercising.
2. Have no transportation? Take advantage of driver services through a retirement center or a government-sponsored affordable ride program, so you can get out of your house. The U.S. Administration on Aging can refer you to transportation opportunities in your area. For more information, call 800-677-1116 or go to www.eldercare.gov.
3. Join a club that interests you (a book club, a jazz club, a collectors club), or a spiritual community (a church, mosque, or synagogue). Or become a volunteer at an organization you support.
"When you're alone, you focus too much on yourself and dwell on regrets or worries. When you're with other people, you turn your focus outward. When you're thinking less about yourself, you're worrying less about yourself," says Dr. Miller.
4. Get a pet, if you are physically and mentally able to care for it; pets make wonderful companions, and they provide many emotional and physical benefits.
5. Sign up for visits by volunteers from senior centers or for Meals on Wheels, which also has a visitors program. "Simply having conversations with people will stimulate your brain and make you feel better," says Dr. Miller.
Isolation is a risk factor for loneliness. "There's no hard-and-fast rule that everyone needs to be involved with others all the time, but we tend to feel better when we're with others, and we may feel worse if we're often alone," says Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry.
What causes isolation? Risk factors include living alone, without family support; having a disability; struggling with language barriers; and facing geographical challenges—such as living in a rural area or not having transportation—that keep you from accessing benefits.