Seniors and Solitude – Why Isolation is a Huge Health Risk
When it comes to seniors, loneliness is a silent killer.
Although it may sound strange or hard to comprehend, studies repeatedly show that senior isolation and loneliness are as dangerous as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure, or obesity. And what’s more disturbing, this health risk is not always easy to notice, in spite of its harmful physical and mental effects.
Human beings are highly social creatures. Our social needs are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. We are interested in establishing and maintaining friendly relationships and participating in group activities. Being surrounded by others gives us a sense of belonging.
But as we age, our social connections have a tendency to narrow down for a number of reasons.
Retirement, death of family members and friends, and the lack of mobility can all contribute to an elderly person’s vulnerability to isolation and loneliness. Let’s look further into how all these factors can have detrimental and alarming consequences for senior health.
Social Isolation vs. Loneliness
Although living alone doesn’t necessarily lead to senior isolation, it is definitely a significant risk factor.
Loneliness and isolation may be difficult to distinguish, although they are not the same. Not all who are isolated are lonely and not all who are lonely are isolated.
A senior person may still experience subjective isolation even around others. Loneliness is not determined by the mere number of our relationships.
It is the quality of the social interactions that counts. A genuine, caring relationship can be extremely valuable and more important than a number of superficial contacts.
Changes in the Brain
Seniors who suffer from loneliness have a 59% higher risk of mental decline and a 64% higher risk of dementia.
A research group at the University of Chicago that studied social isolation for 30 years found that loneliness may contribute to poorer cognitive performance and faster cognitive decline.
Physical inactivity is common in elderly people, particularly because of loneliness.
The lack of exercise increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health conditions. Four-year research found that socially isolated men had a 90% increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.
Furthermore, another study pointed to a link between senior solitude and high blood pressure.
Impact on Overall Physical Health
Solitude may lead to unhealthy behaviors such as smoking, poor eating habits, or alcohol abuse as coping strategies with overwhelming feelings of distress.
Fortunately, however, we now have at our disposal modern-day technology that can provide a solution to this facet of elderly care. It is highly recommended that seniors with impaired mobility who still live on their own wear a reliable medical alert device that will notify their caretakers when something is wrong.
Risk of Mental Health Issues
Loneliness is regarded as one of the major risk factors for depression.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that loneliness and isolation are associated with a higher overall risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and more.
Researchers at the University of California found that almost a quarter of the seniors who reported feeling isolated or lonely died by the end of the 6-year study period, in comparison to the death of 14.2% of older adults who said they were satisfied with their social lives.
Identifying Senior Isolation
Some of the signs to watch for include significant changes in weight or appetite, sleep disorders, neglect to care for personal hygiene and living environment (e.g. clutter and hoarding), loss of interest and withdrawal from social gatherings or personal hobbies.
What Can Help?
Staying in touch with friends and family has never been easier. Video-chatting services are a great way for seniors to stay connected with others. Social stimulation is thought to help maintain brain health as well.
Providing adequate public transportation can help older adults stay socially engaged and independent, as well as combat solitude.
Activities such as volunteering or taking part in clubs, support groups, and group exercise programs can help reduce loneliness. It’s important to encourage seniors to participate in different activities and provide them with the means to do so at all times. Especially when bleak weather is bound to keep them in their homes, encouraging winter activities will help provide entertainment, social connection, and stimulation.
Also, socializing with other people who have adopted healthy habits may strengthen healthy behaviors.
Although our social networks may thin as we age, there are steps we can take to stay connected to the community and have meaningful relationships with others in our golden years.
These steps may improve our health and keep us vigorous and socially engaged.
Nurturing meaningful relationships and finding a purpose is a pathway to mental, physical, and emotional well-being.