Social isolation and loneliness affect many people - especially older adults. Some are affected in ways that put their physical and mental health at risk.
Social isolation is a lack of social contact with others. Loneliness is feeling alone with or without social contact. Older adults are largely affected by both.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- One in three adults age 45 and older feel lonely
- One in four adults age 65 and older are socially isolated
Older adults are more likely to be affected by loneliness and social isolation for many reasons. Older adults are more likely to live alone, have hearing loss, decreased mobility or other health problems that can limit their interaction with others.
Loneliness and isolation can lead to significant emotional and mental health issues. Along with feeling disconnected, people experiencing loneliness may find it hard to trust others or may feel threatened.
Like physical pain, emotional pain can activate the body’s stress responses. Over time, this can result in chronic inflammation and reduced immunity, which can raise the risk of chronic diseases.
“Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for serious health conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, obesity, depression and anxiety,” says Michael Pham, DO, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Carlsbad.
According to the CDC, social isolation significantly increased someone’s risk of premature death from all causes. It is also associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia.
Poor social relationships characterized by social isolation or loneliness were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
Heart failure patients who experienced loneliness had nearly four times the average risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
“If feelings of isolation or loneliness are affecting your emotional or physical health, talk to your doctor,” Dr. Pham says “Be very honest about how you’re feeling and how it is affecting your life. Your doctor can offer suggestions and resources to help you feel better and improve your quality of life.”
Other steps can be taken to help prevent the negative physical and emotional effects of loneliness or social isolation:
Make self-care a priority. Exercise, eat healthy meals, get enough sleep and try to spend time outdoors every day.
Make an effort every day to connect with family or friends in person, over the phone, by text or online. Go for a walk with a friend or neighbor or play games together online.
Studies show people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others experience better moods, have a sense of purpose and tend to live longer.
Join an online book club, take a class or join a group that shares your interest. Check with your local community center or faith-based organization for options.
Caring for a companion animal can be rewarding and comforting and can lower stress and blood pressure. Or, you can look into volunteering at a local shelter or pet-sitting for a neighbor.
Volunteer at an organization that is meaningful to you and realize the health benefits. Becoming involved with a cause can ward off feelings of loneliness and help you meet people with similar interests.