Lonely, isolated older adults face associated health risks

October 25, 2021 | by Charles Lawler, M.D.
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

We are social beings. And if we ever took this for granted, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a stark reminder. We’ve felt the effects of isolation, and it isn’t pretty.

Even before the coronavirus disrupted our social lives, experts have long studied the health effects of isolation and loneliness. There’s one group in particular at high risk — older adults.

As we get older, many of us are alone more often. This lack of connection leaves us vulnerable.

Loneliness (the feeling of being alone) and social isolation (a lack of social connections) affect a significant number of older adults in the U.S. And, unfortunately, many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Health problems associated with social isolation and loneliness include depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) has funded research that focuses on the different ways that loneliness affects how your mind and body function. Some studies suggests that people who feel lonely may have weakened immune cells and have trouble fighting off illnesses.

NIA-funded researcher Steve Cole, Ph.D., says: “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.”

The CDC states that 80 percent of older adults have at least one chronic health condition, and 50 percent have two or more. Chronic illness can put older adults at increased risk for depression, which takes a toll on the body and increases the risk of developing illnesses like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

What can older adults do to prevent the negative health effects of social isolation and loneliness? First, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can assess your risk for loneliness and social isolation and work with you to help prevent associated medical conditions.

You can also try these tips to combat loneliness and isolation as you age:

  • Engage in meaningful, productive activities with others.
  • Join a support group for older adults or a religious organization for spiritual support.
  • Find a sense of purpose. It’s a buffer against stress, anxiety and depression.
  • Structure your days by setting goals that become part of your regular routine.
  • Help others by volunteering at a hospital, animal shelter or organization you care about.
  • Work for a social cause with others who share your values.
  • Do something you enjoy each day (e.g., reading, writing, drawing, music, puzzles, games).
  • Take a class that interests you (e.g., art, cooking, swimming, yoga)
  • Practice gratitude. It can lead to more life satisfaction, among other health benefits.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle (e.g., eat well, get good sleep, exercise regularly).
  • Consult with a doctor who has expertise in geriatric populations and/or seek help from a professional geriatric counselor.
  • Access community resources, including: AARP, Illinois Department on Aging, Eldercare Locator, and National Council on Aging.

Keep in mind, people can feel lonely regardless of the amount of social contact they have. Some people don’t mind being alone and don’t feel lonely when they’re alone. Others feel lonely while among a group of people.

If you notice changes in your mood, energy level or appetite that persist or interfere with everyday life, don’t dismiss them as a normal part of getting older. Get help. Be aware of warning signs of depression in older adults.

Dr. Charles Lawler is an internal medicine physician who specializes in geriatrics. To learn more about Dr. Lawler or to schedule and appointment online, visit his online profile.

Older adults have unique medical and psychological needs. Learn about our geriatric services at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, including an inpatient program for adults age 60 and older, and an inpatient Generations program for ages 50 and older.

Are you at risk for depression? Take our free, online DepressionAware risk assessment.

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