Most of us know what it is like to be lonely. At some point in our lives, most of us have encountered life experiences that have left us longing for more human interaction. Be it the death of a loved one, moving to a new location, or changing jobs, regardless of the reason loneliness feels painful and debilitating. The human brain has evolved to thrive on and even become dependent on human and social interaction. Humans have an inherent desire from birth to be with other people, and feelings of loneliness or isolation have several detrimental effects on a person’s well-being.
When people think of an epidemic, they think of things like substance abuse or a virus, not loneliness. Studies have shown that about one-fifth of Americans report feelings of loneliness. It affects people of every age, race, and gender; however, senior citizens seem to be the most impacted. In this second part of a three-part series on senior loneliness and isolation, we will discuss how both physical and mental health can be impacted by these all too common challenges faced by seniors.
The loneliness epidemic is much worse than many may initially think or realize. Loneliness is far more than a mere case of the blues. Research shows that chronic loneliness can be deadlier than obesity. More accurately, lonely people have a fifty percent greater mortality rate than non-lonely people, whereas, in comparison, obese people have an eighteen percent greater mortality rate than those who are not obese.
How Loneliness Affects Health
In recent years, there have been various studies concerning the health effects that loneliness has on the elderly. One analysis that compared lonely seniors to non-lonely seniors found that lonely seniors suffered from different medical conditions as a noticeably higher rate than those who do not struggle with loneliness.
Hypertension and other senior heart conditions
Over recent years, there have been extensive studies regarding the relationships between cardiovascular disorders and social isolation and loneliness. Cardiovascular disorders include coronary artery disease, stroke, and hypertension, among others. While there were variables in measurements across several different studies, on average, loneliness and isolation were found to be associated with a twenty-nine percent increase in the risk of coronary heart disease and a thirty-two percent increase in the risk of stroke. A wide range of other studies also shows increased rates of an increased rate of heart attack, hypertension, heart failure, and death related to cardiac events.
Mental health conditions
Many studies of the elderly population have examined the associations of chronic loneliness and social isolation with the risk of dementia and cognitive decline. A study conducted in 2015 found an increased risk of dementia to be associated with chronic loneliness and isolation from friends and family. Social isolation has also been linked to episodes of cognitive decline in the elderly. Studies examined areas related to cognition, including global cognition, processing speed, and executive function, among others. Additional studies have been conducted to study the relationship between loneliness and isolation and other mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Similar to other studies, although numbers and data differed slightly across individual studies, direct links were shown between loneliness and the increased instance of mental health disorders.
Suicide and suicidal ideations are particularly concerning mental health issues. Both social isolation and loneliness have been identified as substantial risk factors for suicide in individuals regardless of age. Between 1999 and 2017, suicide rates have been on the rise across many different demographics, and seniors are no exception. Currently, white males over the age of 85 have been identified as being at the highest risk. Depression has proven to be the most relevant cause of suicide attempts; however, loneliness and isolation have also been identified as significant contributing factors.
Diabetes, high cholesterol, and other chronic health problems
Other bodies of research show links between loneliness and isolation and other chronic health conditions. Studies have shown individuals who report struggling with chronic loneliness are more than forty percent likely to be affected by chronic disease such as diabetes, more than thirty percent likely to have elevated cholesterol levels and an astounding ninety-four percent more likely to report impaired general health including limited physical abilities and a reduction in the ability to complete required activities of daily living. Activities of daily living or ADL’s include eating, bathing, and dressing oneself.
High blood pressure
A study conducted by the University of Chicago revealed that loneliness could significantly affect someone’s blood pressure. This effect is even more significant as people age. Differences between blood pressure levels in lonely and non-lonely seniors can be as much as thirty points. One caveat to this statistic does exist. Data also showed that exercise and decrease in weight could help to reduce blood pressure by the same amount as loneliness can increase it. While this may be beneficial, many seniors struggle with getting adequate exercise (for various reasons), and therefore weight gain is often typical among aging seniors.
Another way loneliness can be deadly is how it affects the immune system. Several studies have shown a link between loneliness and abnormalities in monocyte levels in the body. Monocytes are white blood cells that help to defend the body against infection. Social isolation impacts the ability of the monocytes to develop fully. Consequently, rather than fight off infection, the immature monocytes decrease immune function.
Loneliness and Seniors Health-Related Behaviors
Social connection or a lack thereof may also have an impact on health-related behaviors such as smoking, diet, sleep patterns, substance use, and exercise. These impacts can be both positive and negative. Loneliness and isolation have been associated with levels of use (including relapse or cessation) of tobacco and alcohol. For instance, if someone’s social circle begins to shrink or contact with family and friends begins to wain as they age, they may turn to substances such as alcohol or tobacco to cope. On the other hand, the pull of alcohol or tobacco may reduce if one’s isolation or loneliness is diminished. Evidence specifically related to studies regarding the connection between isolation and health-related behaviors has shown that seniors who are lonely or isolated are more likely to have less healthy behaviors such as smoking, heavy alcohol use, lack of physical activity, and poor diet.
Contact Baxter Senior Living Today
Unfortunately for some communities, loneliness and seniors’ are all too common challenges faced by too many. The issues (medical, emotional, and physical) that can result from chronic depression are far too often overlooked but demand attention and acknowledgment for their potentially dangerous, life-altering effects. Thousands of studies have been conducted around the impact of loneliness and isolation on senior members of the population. The overwhelming majority of this evidence-based clinical research links chronic loneliness and isolation to a host of health-related impacts, some of which can lead to an early death. Some of the difficulties related to loneliness and isolation can be alleviated through the benefits of senior living communities like Baxter Senior Living in Anchorage, Alaska. As we age, living alone can lead to a host of challenges, of which isolation and loneliness fall high on the list.
At Baxter Senior Living, we understand how social isolation affects mental health. We acknowledge the critical role involvement in social circles, group activities, and community interaction plays in embracing a healthy mindset. We prioritize helping our Alaskan residents maintain physical and emotional health throughout all stages in life. If you think a senior community in Anchorage, Alaska, may be the right choice for your senior loved one, contact Baxter Senior Living today.