There are many reasons why as we age, isolation is more likely to increase. Social experts say that often an older adult might withdraw due to health conditions, physical limitations, depression, nervousness about driving or a lack of a strong network of family and friends nearby. Research is revealing that this can be problematic for not only a loved one's emotional well-being but also for their physical health-- in a big way.
According to many studies, loneliness can lead to chronic conditions, diabetes, depression, brain damage, heart issues and it can even kill. Some studies reveal that people who are lonely are twice as likely to have an earlier death than those who are not.
The tricky part of all this is that in a lot of cases, loved ones will not admit to when they are feeling increasingly isolated. It is easy to be unaware of just how lonely or isolated your loved one might be. This lack of awareness is what leads to loneliness becoming a more serious problem than it has to be.
Medical Impacts of Loneliness
- Brain: loneliness may speed the onset of dementia. A recent study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, found 13 percent of 2,000 healthy, dementia-free older adults followed for three years – 13% reported loneliness and dementia by the end of that time vs. 6% who had a strong social support system.
- Heart: Journal of American Medical concluded there is a link between loneliness and fatal heart disease. One study revealed that after following 44,000 individuals with heart disease they found 8% of patients living alone died after four years in comparison to 5.7% who lived in a group situation or with a spouse.
--A Swedish study focused on coronary bypass patients around the age of 71. Those who checked the box “I feel lonely” had a mortality rate 2.5 times higher than other post surgery patients. Even five years later, the statistics did not change and they were twice as likely to have passed away compared to less lonely individuals.
--A study from Brigham Young University analyzed data for over 300,000 people and it was revealed that loneliness is as much of an indication of earlier death as alcoholism and heavy smoking.
- Loneliness Kills: In one study, a group of older adults in California were followed by researchers at the University of California for six years. By the end of the six years, 22.8% of those who reported feelings of isolation or loneliness had died. This is almost a quarter of the people who were being followed. In comparison, only 12.5% the people who stated they were happy with their social networks had declining health and 14.2% had passed away.
This data is important to keep in mind now, as in some studies the average age is the 70’s age range. Many baby boomers are reaching retirement age and don’t necessarily have the social networks available in order to keep them from isolation.
Protecting Your Loved Ones from Loneliness
Fortunately, there are ways to protect your loved ones from loneliness. See some below:
- Encourage them to live with loved ones – studies show that elders who live alone are prone to a host of health issues compared to those married or in a group living situation. This suggestion will often come with resistance but it is worth it to encourage them as it can be a major benefit for many elders.
- Show them how to be social-media savvy – using social media sites like Facebook and Instagram make it easier for an elderly loved one to feel connected to others. Simply being able to see what others post can make them feel more connected to the world around them. There are also many of online support groups that can help a loved one who has trouble with mobility or a chronic condition. Using an online group can provide encouragement, joy, purpose and motivation. On a similar technology related note, teaching them how to use a device like a Kindle or a Nook can help them get happily lost in some of their favorite books.
- Help them find support groups – many older adults live with chronic conditions. This can make them feel isolated and even depressed. Being able to connect with others who suffer from similar illnesses can make them feel less alone and even motivate and empower them to find out how to better manage their condition.
- Arrange transportation options for them – isolation is often due to a lack of transportation. By calling a local area agency on aging you can find all transportation resources for the area your loved one lives in.
Now is the Time to Take Action
It is vital that we take action now to prevent the loneliness of our elderly loved ones. This is especially true since many baby boomers are now reaching retirement age.
Overwhelming data reveals that lonely people are significantly more likely to suffer earlier deaths than people who are not, and we can be a part of stopping this unnecesary suffering.