Humans thrive off social interaction, some much more than others. These connections are also essential to our mental, emotional, and even physical health. But as we age, it’s common to lose touch with friends and we find ourselves more alone than ever, facing social isolation and loneliness. Eventually, health problems including cognitive decline, depression, and even heart disease can occur. While these can be life-threatening, there are ways to prevent this from happening.
According to the National Institute on Aging, researchers are studying the differences between loneliness and social isolation, their effects and risks, and how to help those affected.
While they are similar, social isolation and loneliness are not the same. Approximately 28 percent of older adults in the US live alone, but many of them are not lonely or socially isolated, according to the Administration for Community Living’s Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
One of the biggest questions is to determine whether loneliness and social isolation are independent of affecting one’s overall health, or whether loneliness provides a pathway for social isolation to deteriorate one’s health.
Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness
While general loneliness and social isolation don’t seem threatening at first, they increase the risks of severe mental and physical conditions, including the following:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Weakened immune system
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Cognitive decline
Those facing a particularly large risk of these conditions are those who have lost their spouse or partner or experience separation from friends and family, loss of mobility, lack of transportation, and retirement.
On the other hand, people who engage in productive, meaningful activities with others will likely live longer as they have a boost in their mood and feel like they have a sense of purpose. The activities can also improve their cognitive function.
Details of Loneliness Research
According to the research of late John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and an NIA grantee, being alone and loneliness are both similar and different. For instance, he found that social isolation was the objective of physical separation from others (such as living alone) while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. It’s also possible to feel lonely with others as well as not feel lonely when you are alone.
While there is always more to learn about feelings of loneliness and treatment, much of what we know has improved dramatically since research began over twenty years ago. Cacioppo also predicted that loneliness triggers both behavioral and biological processes that contribute to the ties between loneliness and premature death in people of all ages. The research continues to study all generations today.
Understanding the Details of Loneliness
When people lose a sense of community and connection, it changes their perception of the world. For example, one who feels severe loneliness often feels mistrustful and threatened by others, which can activate a biological defense mechanism. There has been much research on the physiological pathways of loneliness as far as how it affects your mind and body function as well as how to develop social and psychological interventions to prevent it.
For instance, loneliness may promote inflammation, which is needed to help our bodies heal from injury. But if it lasts too long, it can increase the risk of chronic diseases.
According to Dr. Steve Cole, director of the Social Genomic Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
Genetic and Social Factors of Loneliness
Researchers are also trying to determine potential interactions between older adults facing loneliness or social isolation and their genetic makeup.
Using family-based approaches, previous studies have estimated there is between 37 – 55 percent chance of heritability of loneliness. So those who are not genetically prone to feel lonely will suffer much less from social isolation than those who need a rich social life. One’s socioeconomic status can be another factor that affects one’s social isolation and loneliness feelings.
Researchers have also found that loneliness is influenced by metabolic, cardiovascular, and psychiatric traits, while family history does not have as much of an influence.
One should also understand the social determinants of health as well as the interpersonal process in healthy aging and longevity as scientists apply this research on loneliness and isolation.
For now, researchers are still studying the extent to which social isolation and loneliness are malleable and the best ways to approach them. They have found this to be the first step in developing effective interventions. There is also more to study on how much change is needed in order to reverse the health effects of social isolation and loneliness.
Senior Companionship and Elderly Care Services
Just as loneliness and social isolation can have severe impacts on seniors’ physical, mental and emotional health, having someone to keep these individuals company can promote a healthier lifestyle. When engaged in meaningful activities and events, they will feel like they have a sense of purpose, which can have many health benefits.
Especially when receiving companion care, seniors can enjoy the company of a caregiver around to not only provide for them, but take them out to dinner, attend family and community events, and engage in fun activities.
For seniors living in the Richardson, Park Cities, Dallas, TX area, Assisting Hands Home Care provides elderly care and companion care services to combat any feelings of loneliness or depression while accommodating to their needs. Whether it’s taking a walk in the park or staying inside and watching TV, having a caregiver present can largely benefit your loved one’s well-being.
Schedule a Free Consultation
To schedule a free consultation regarding our elderly care or companion care services in Richardson, University Park, Highland Park, Dallas, TX and surrounding areas, contact Assisting Hands Home Care at (214) 865-7870.