According to the U.S. Census Bureau 11 million, or 28% of people aged 65 and older, lived alone in 2010. As people get older, their likelihood of living alone only increases. Additionally, more and older adults do not have children, reports the AARP, and that means fewer family members to provide company and care as those adults become seniors.
According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older.
One possible explanation: “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop, because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.” Efforts to reduce isolation are the key to addressing the issue of mortality, said the study’s authors.
New research indicates that loneliness puts seniors a greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and other ills.
Loneliness is often defined as the distress people feel when reality fails to meet their ideal of social relationships.
The Wall Street Journal highlighted a recent UCLA School of Medicine study, which was conducted in collaboration with the University of California at Davis and the University of Chicago. The study found that “social isolation turned up the activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down the activity of genes that produce antibodies to fight infection.”
A type of white blood cell that is produced in bone marrow plays a special immunological role and is one of the body’s first lines of defense against infection. But when these blood cells become compromised, it can cause inflammation and reduce antibody protection. And this is more likely to occur among lonely people.
An interesting part of the study delved into the fact that as man evolved, loneliness became an important factor, and impacted the ability for ancient man to survive. Survival depended on cooperation and communications. So social isolation put ancient man at greater risk. It also shaped the brain to desire and need food.
The study found that lonely people are more likely to act negatively toward others, which makes it that much harder for them to forge relationships.
The study’s sponsors point out that loneliness is not synonymous with being alone.
“Many people live solitary lives but are not lonely. And being surrounded by others is no guarantee against loneliness.”
The senior caretaker, whether a family member or an outside caretaking expert, can play a valuable role by listening to a senior, allowing them to share their thoughts and disclose hidden issues. Many times this conversation will unlock truths that can help a senior better cope with their lives.
A caretaker’s most valuable role, often, is encouraging family members to visit their senior parents or relatives more frequently. Often, seniors will start to open up and tell stories that create stronger bonds with relatives, and especially with younger family members whose perceptions may have been shaped by past visits when the senior was not communicating or was in a bad mood due their isolation.
The message is clear that isolation and loneliness can lead to bigger health issues and require some proactive steps to reduce the impact of loneliness on general health and well-being.