Senior Health

8/4/2020 | By Annie Tobey

As a new physician, then later as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Murthy noted one major health issue overlooked by the medical profession: loneliness. In his conversations with patients and other Americans, he discovered that loneliness was connected to a variety of other health issues and emotions.

As adults age, the loneliness problem can grow, due to life’s inevitable changes. Empty nests, retirement, disability and decreased mobility, divorce and widowhood, friends and family moving away or dying; these and other transitions make loneliness more likely for aging adults. People who are proud of their independence and self-reliance can see a request for help as a sign of weakness. Even seasons – such as winter’s cold temperatures, ice, and snow – and major events like the coronavirus pandemic can exacerbate the problem.

Physical Side Effects

“A 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 22 percent of adults in the United States struggle with chronic loneliness. That’s more than the number who smoke or who have diabetes,” said social scientist Shankar Vedantam in an NPR Hidden Brain podcast conversation with Murthy.

Making matters worse, loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. People who struggle with loneliness have a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and other dementia, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicide. It can adversely affect the immune system. Because loneliness results in a decline of well-being and physical health, “Loneliness is thus among the latent causes of hospitalization and of placement in nursing homes,” reported the Indian Journal of Psychiatry.

Lonely people may even live shorter lives.

In fact, “Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said the federal Health Services and Resources Administration, with a greater mortality impact than obesity, excess alcohol consumption or sedentary living. “Poor social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke, studies have shown.”

The HRSA added, “The problem is particularly acute among seniors, especially during holidays.”

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, psychology professor at Brigham Young University, studies social connectivity and the epidemic of loneliness. Holt-Lunstad has measured the perils of loneliness. Her studies revealed that loneliness and social isolation are linked to about a 30 percent increased risk of stroke or coronary artery disease. She also found that blood pressure and anxiety are higher for people with certain relationship issues.

On the other hand, Holt-Lunstad discovered that people with strong social bonds are approximately 50 percent less likely to die over a given period of time than those who have fewer social connections.

The Other Sides of Loneliness

So, in 2020, Murthy published Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Two-thirds of his book delves into the ill effects of loneliness. However, he also pointed to two positives.

First, he reminds us that not all of the time we spend alone equates to loneliness. Instead, solitude can be healing. We can benefit from reclaiming the benefits of alone time. This is possible through meditation, self-reflection, relaxation, artistic creation, reading, and other moments of purposeful pause.

And second, we can find creative solutions to build more connected lives and reverse the loneliness trend – for ourselves and our society. Personally, we can find community groups to connect with. Or we can choose a lifestyle that promotes human connection, such as a quality senior living community.

Other resources specifically for seniors to find support include:

  • National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults. A national effort to increase social engagement among older adults through a variety of activities; administered by the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (n4a) and funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging.
  • Eldercare Locator. A public service of the U.S. Administration on Aging connecting people to services for older adults and their families.
  • National Council on Aging. A resource on senior programs that assist with healthy aging and financial security.
  • AARP. Providing a range of information to help older adults improve quality of life.

Loneliness is a painful emotion with far-reaching negative health effects. Combatting it can help mitigate those effects.

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey