Among the many health concerns that can befall seniors, loneliness is one of the most common and least discussed. With aging come a number of factors that contribute to isolation and loneliness, such as the deaths of spouses and close friends, family members moving away, and the onset of debilitating illnesses. Worse, loneliness itself can cause a number of health-related issues for seniors, including increased risk mortality, depression, cognitive decline, dementia, high blood pressure, and a number of other conditions.
Senior Isolation and Loneliness: Causes
As mentioned above, the biggest contributing factor to senior loneliness is living alone. However, there are several other factors that can lead to isolation and loneliness in seniors. These factors include:
- The death of one’s spouse
- Children moving away
- A change in living environment
- The deterioration of a friend network (often due to death)
- The fear of becoming a burden
- The fear of going out and incurring an injury
- Difficulty communicating (i.e. language barriers and hearing problems)
- Illness (particularly dementia)
Each of these factors can lead to increased loneliness in seniors. Increased loneliness can, in turn, lead to a number of serious health effects.
Negative Health Effect #1: Reduced Physical and Mental Health
While the first negative health effect covered on our list nearly goes without saying, it speaks to the broad scope of loneliness’s impact on senior health. Put simply, loneliness has a direct correlation to both physical and mental health — and this correlation is not a good one. A recent study conducted using data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project found that seniors who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to report also having poor physical and/or mental health. While the link between loneliness and overall health are still being discovered by the medical community, one thing is clear: Loneliness has a detrimental effect on health in a number of ways.
Negative Health Effect #2: Increased Risk of Mortality
Another negative health effect caused by loneliness in seniors is the increased risk of mortality. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found both social isolation and loneliness to be associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. One hypothesis suggested that this result was due to the fact that seniors who live alone or lack social contacts are less likely to seek medical attention if acute symptoms develop due to lack of prompting.
Negative Health Effect #3: Increased Risk of Cognitive Decline and Dementia
As a mental condition, loneliness has several negative effects on mental health. In seniors, these effects are most starkly seen as cognitive decline and the onset of various forms of dementia. Dr. John Cacioppo, a distinguished neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago who has been studying social isolation for more than 30 years, found in his many studies that perceived social isolation (i.e. loneliness) is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, and the onset of dementia.
Negative Health Effect #4: Increased Risk of Depression
Perhaps one of the most intuitive effects of loneliness is its impact on mood. No matter the demographic group, loneliness is always associated with negative feelings including, but not limited to, sadness, pain, numbness, and low self-worth. As it turns out, feeling loneliness is associated closely with symptoms of depression in adults and seniors. This suggests that feeling loneliness may contribute to the onset of mental health issues such as depression, or may exacerbate mental health conditions in those individuals where they are already present.
Negative Health Effect #5: Increased Risk of High Blood Pressure and Long-Term Illness
While loneliness is a condition of the mind, its impacts can be found in regions far beyond the brain. In fact, several studies have shown a link between loneliness and reduced physical health in seniors. One result of the PNAS study mentioned above was the correlation between loneliness and long-term illness. Seniors reporting loneliness were also more likely to suffer from long-term illness. Additionally, a study published in Psychology and Aging showed a direct relationship between loneliness in older adults and increases in systolic blood pressure over a 4-year period. These increases in blood pressure were independent of race, ethnicity, gender, and other possible contributing factors.
Senior Isolation and Loneliness: Spotting the Symptoms
With the many negative health effects of loneliness now clear, it’s evident that addressing loneliness is important in maintaining the health and well-being of any senior individual. In many cases, the first step to addressing loneliness is identifying it. If you believe that a senior in your life may be struggling with loneliness, look for these signs and symptoms:
- Sadness or feelings of despair
- Loss of interest in hobbies, socializing, or other daily activities
- Lack of energy or motivation
- Sleep disturbances and memory problems
- Unexplained or aggravated aches and pains
- Neglect of personal hygiene and other routines
Tips for Reducing Senior Isolation and Loneliness
While loneliness can be incredibly detrimental to health, it can also be successfully alleviated through a number of activities and treatments. For many seniors, the increased presence of people is all that is needed to alleviate loneliness. This can be achieved in a number of ways, including scheduling regular outings and visitations with friends and family, attending senior activities in the community, volunteering, and making the move to an independent or assisted living community. Exercise is another excellent activity that can help alleviate senior loneliness. One study, discussed by Health Quality Ontario, showed that seniors reported greater well-being when regularly performing aerobic and low-impact exercises.