August 5, 2016

Loneliness and Isolation Can Be Deadly!

A recent article in  the Harvard Health Letter – titled 5 ways to fight loneliness and isolation -- was the most recent in a series of reports I've seen warning that loneliness is a health threat, particularly for the elderly.
  • One in six adults aged 65+ is isolated socially or geographically, according to The National Council on Aging.
  • 25% of seniors aged 70+ reported feeling lonely, according to a 2010 AARP survey.
The health risks from loneliness are pretty scary:
  •  A 29% higher risk of coronary artery disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke are associated with loneliness and isolation, according to a July report in the Harvard publication. 
  • Thinking skills declined about 20% faster over 12 years among the loneliest people in a recent study, compared with study participants who reported that they were not lonely, according to Harvard researchers.
  • A 2012 study in JAMA Internal Medicine reported that people who identified themselves as lonely were 59% more likely to lose the ability to perform tasks of daily living, and 45% more likely to die early than those who didn't identify as lonely.
  • Other studies have associated loneliness with depression and high blood pressure.
There's the usual caveat here – these studies have identified only "associations" between loneliness and these reported risks. No evidence conclusively proves cause and effect.

Is There a Way to Explain the Link?
Several factors come into play, according to Dr. Michael Craig Miller, a Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry:
We do better physically when we're part of a community. We are social animals who have evolved to do best when we're engaged with others. Also, when we're with friends and family, we benefit from “social contagion,” where you pick up on what others are doing for health, or others encourage you to do something about your health.

In addition, Dr. Miller identified isolation as a risk factor for loneliness: “There’s no hard-and-fast rule that everyone needs to be involved with others all the time, but we tend to feel better when we're with others, and we may feel worse if we're often alone.”

Isolation is a risk factor for loneliness. What causes isolation?
  • Living alone, without family support
  • Having a disability
  • Struggling with language barriers
  • Facing geographical challenges -- like living in a rural area or not having transportation -- that prevent you from accessing benefits.
The Harvard researchers note that combating loneliness and isolation takes planning and effort. They suggest these strategies: 
1. Reach out to family and friends, even if it's just with a phone call or a video call (using a computer program or smartphone app to actually see the person you're talking with). "Virtual connections are still connections," says Dr. Miller. "Even a quick text or seeing someone's face on a screen can improve your well-being." Make contact with someone a regular part of your day, like taking medicine or exercising. 
2. Have no transportation? Take advantage of driver services through a retirement center or a government-sponsored affordable ride program, so you can get out of your house. The U.S. Administration on Aging can refer you to transportation opportunities in your area. For more information, call 800-677-1116 or go to
3. Join a club that interests you (a book club, a jazz club, a collectors club), or a spiritual community (a church, mosque, or synagogue). Or become a volunteer at an organization you support. 
"When you're alone, you focus too much on yourself and dwell on regrets or worries. When you're with other people, you turn your focus outward. When you're thinking less about yourself, you're worrying less about yourself," says Dr. Miller. 
4. Get a pet, if you are physically and mentally able to care for it; pets make wonderful companions, and they provide many emotional and physical benefits. 
5. Sign up for visits by volunteers from senior centers or for Meals on Wheels, which also has a visitors program. "Simply having conversations with people will stimulate your brain and make you feel better," says Dr. Miller.

Dealing with Loneliness Later in Life
I was lonely at times growing up in Ithaca, particularly in my first two years attending Cornell as a day student in the liberal arts college, where fraternities and sororities were the heart of campus social life.

During my middle years, I had eruptions of loneliness as a married closeted gay. But some close friendships at work helped greatly.

The traumatic year when I ended living at "home alone" fortunately was a time when I also developed more new and deep friendships than at any other time in my life thanks to my introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous and the gay community.

That was 1978. Since then, I've rarely felt lonely for long, although I'm often alone. I love the time I spend with my family -- actually families, plural -- and friends. But time alone -- not lonely time -- is essential for me to recharge. It's always been that way.

Now as I head into the home stretch, I have an ideal living arrangement -- sharing my house with a young couple who have become a second family for me. And this past spring, they welcomed the new love of my life Nivah, their four-month-old daughter..

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 I've written often about the dangers of loneliness. Here are just a few of those posts:

1 comment:

Anna said...

Caution should always be used when interpreting these kinds of study results. It's important to remember that CORRELATION (or ASSOCIATION0 does not mean CAUSATION. In other words, it may just be that the health risks mentioned above stem from the same cause as loneliness does. For example, to say that "a 29% higher risk of coronary artery disease and a 32% higher risk of stroke are associated with loneliness and isolation" does not necessarily mean that loneliness and isolation CAUSE elevated risks of CAD and stroke. There's a good chance there is something else going on in the person's life -- like high stress or poor diet -- that BOTH causes loneliness and increases CAD/stroke.