It’s an unfortunate reality that many older people are isolated and alone. When you are older, it’s easy to slip into loneliness.
Loneliness alone is enough of a problem, but in truth, loneliness can create several health issues. These health problems can often be solved easily with a little company and a brighter outlook on life, but it can feel impossible to reach a better place when you are isolated and alone.
Older people who are isolated seem to have a higher risk of heart disease, obesity, mental health issues, and high blood pressure. In addition, those who have become unexpectedly isolated – i.e., through a sudden death of a partner, friend, or child, or, more recently, through the global pandemic – are at a higher risk of falling into isolation-related health risks.
But older people can become isolated for many reasons. In fact, it’s often health issues that create social isolation in the first place. Hearing loss can be a frequent factor – something you might want to learn more about if you know an older person who has suffered hearing loss.
On the other hand, older people who have regular social contact, meaningful relationships, and engage in activities are more likely to live longer. They have a boosted mood and a sense of purpose. All this adds up to better brain cognition and better well-being.
How does loneliness cause health problems?
Loneliness and isolation are two different things. Isolation is a literal, physical separation from social contact with people. Alternatively, loneliness is the subjective feeling of distress around being separated from others or alone. For this reason, some isolated people won’t feel lonely at all, while others may feel lonely, even when surrounded by other people.
There are different views on why loneliness causes health problems. Right now, it’s a relatively new area of study.
One popular theory is that when people become isolated and lonely, they become distrustful of other people. They can feel threatened by them. This feeling sets off the biological defense mechanism. Even though the danger isn’t real, the body acts like there is a real danger.
This can lead to several health issues.
Dr. Steve Cole, the director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, has researched the physiological pathways of loneliness. In his work, he has said:
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.”
Dr. Cole isn’t the only one researching the effects of loneliness. A study discussed by the CDC found that social isolation is associated with around a 50% increased risk of dementia, a 29% increased risk of heart disease, and a 32% higher risk of a stroke.
One of the biggest health issues associated with loneliness is anxiety and depression. The more isolated a person is, the higher the likelihood they will succumb to mental health issues.
It’s widely known that mental health issues are lessened by social contact, time outdoors, and a good diet, but these three things are often unavailable to those who are isolated – especially if physical health problems burden them.
In the end, when older people fall into health issues related to isolation, it can seem impossible to get better on their own. That’s why it’s so essential for younger people to help.
What can we do to help lonely older people?
After hearing all of this, you may be wondering what you can do to help. Of course, the best thing for those who feel isolated is to provide them with social contact.
If you know an older person in your life or community who might be feeling lonely, why not pop round for a warm drink once a week? Encourage others to do the same. You could even take them out to a park or a café for a drink to ensure that they are getting out of the house.
If you don’t know anyone in your community or family, there are plenty of charities you can volunteer for. Some encourage home visits, while others provide telephone calls with isolated older people.
Whichever way you help, you’ll be making a difference to someone’s life – and maybe helping their health.