Elder Loneliness is Linked to Death and Disability
Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. It is also a very common, though normally temporary, consequence of a breakup, divorce, or loss of any important long-term relationship. In these cases, it may stem both from the loss of a specific person and from the withdrawal from social circles caused by the event or the associated sadness. It typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with others, both in the present and the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional and physical factors. I hate to think of anyone being lonely. But I’ve generally considered loneliness a sad, temporary situation, not a serious threat to a person’s health. However, studies suggest that, among older people, feeling lonely may substantially impair their day-to-day ability to function and even increase risk of death.
It has been estimated that approximately 20 percent of the total U.S. population feel lonely. In the UK research shows half a million people more than 60-years-old spend each day alone without social interaction and almost half a million more see and speak to no one for 5 or 6 days a week. Chronic loneliness can be a serious, life-threatening health condition. It has been found to be associated with an increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease. Loneliness shows an increased incidence of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity. Loneliness is shown to cause anxiety, depression, digestive problems, heart disease, sleep problems, and weight gain.
Loneliness appears to have intensified in every society in the world as modernization occurs. The amount of this loneliness appears to be related to greater migration, smaller household sizes, a larger degree of media and internet consumption, among other issues. Loneliness has shown the largest increases among seniors and people living in low-density areas. Seniors living in suburban areas are particularly vulnerable, for as they lose the ability to drive, they often become "stranded" and find it difficult to maintain interpersonal relationships. The UK Prime Minister has even appointed a "Minister for Loneliness" in a drive to tackle social isolation in Briton, a problem for 9 million in their country.
Back in 2012 researchers at University of California, San Francisco analyzed data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study for 1,064 people ages 60 and up. In addition to information about their physical health and medical conditions, socioeconomic status, living conditions and such factors as depression, they looked at the answers given to three questions about loneliness: how often do you feel left out, feel isolated or lack companionship. People were deemed lonely if they responded "some of the time" or "often" to any of those questions; they were considered not lonely if they responded "hardly ever" to all three.
The results were that 43 percent of those surveyed were deemed lonely. After controlling for confounding factors (including depression), loneliness was associated with a nearly 60 percent increased risk of functional decline (loss of ability to perform everyday tasks such as bathing and feeding themselves, climbing stairs, walking, etc.) during the sixyear follow-up period than the folks who were not deemed lonely. Loneliness was linked to a 45 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period. Those findings are even more impactful given that just 18 percent of the people surveyed lived alone – and nearly 75 percent were married.