Social isolation is one of the most serious problems affecting older adults in the United States. An alarming percentage of the senior population feels lonely, and the effects of isolation and loneliness are harmful for all aspects of your health. If you or an aging loved one experiences loneliness, you should understand the negative effects of isolation and what you can do to combat the problem.
Statistics on Senior Isolation and Loneliness
Studies show that social isolation and loneliness are common and devastating problems in older adults. Here are some key statistics on social isolation in seniors:
• In the United States, around 7.7 million seniors, or 24 percent of adults age 65 and older, are socially isolated. Around 4 percent are severely socially isolated.
• About 43 percent of Americans age 60 and older report feeling lonely.
• About 28 percent of seniors in the U.S. live alone, but not all of these individuals feel lonely.
• Around 44 percent of women age 75 and older live alone. Older women are more likely than older men to live alone.
• The biggest risk factors for social isolation and loneliness in seniors are being divorced or widowed, never being married, living below the poverty line, having a disability or limited mobility, and living alone.
Effects of Loneliness in Seniors
To understand the risks and negative effects of loneliness in seniors, it’s important to know the difference between social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is a lack of social connection or regular interaction with others. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the uncomfortable or painful feeling of being alone. In other words, social isolation is the situation many seniors may find themselves in, and loneliness is an emotional effect of that situation.
It is possible to be socially isolated without feeling lonely. Some seniors live alone and spend most of their time by themselves, but they’re happy with their lifestyle. It’s also possible to feel lonely even if you have lots of social contact with others. If you don’t feel truly connected to or supported by the people around you, being with them may not provide enough fulfillment to combat loneliness.
If you or a loved one is aging, keep in mind that everyone’s social and emotional needs vary. Don’t assume that a senior isn’t lonely just because they see their family regularly, and remember to be watchful for the signs and symptoms of loneliness.
Being lonely, especially for a prolonged period of time, can have significant effects on your physical, cognitive, and emotional health. The following are some of the negative effects of social isolation and loneliness in seniors:
Loneliness in seniors is linked to a number of chronic health conditions. Seniors who experienced social isolation have a 29 percent increased risk of developing heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of having a stroke. Among older adults with heart failure, those who report feeling lonely have a 57 percent increased risk of visiting the emergency department and a 68 percent increased risk of being hospitalized.
One possible explanation for this connection is that long-term loneliness leads to feelings of mistrust and defensiveness, which causes your body to activate its biological defense mechanisms. This can increase inflammation, leading to a higher risk of developing a chronic disease.
The connection between loneliness and depression in seniors is clear. Social interaction is a basic, innate need for people of all ages, and social isolation can have a number of serious emotional consequences.
Depression is a particularly harmful effect of loneliness in seniors because it can worsen the social isolation. The condition causes a low mood and a lack of motivation, which makes it very difficult to spend time with others. If you further withdraw from your friends and family because of your depression, your feelings of loneliness get more intense. This makes the depression even stronger, and you can easily become trapped in a vicious cycle of depression and social isolation.
Spending time with others is one of the best ways to prevent or reduce cognitive decline. A good conversation with friends or family challenges your language reception and production, your memory, your focus, and a number of other important cognitive skills. Without regular interaction with others, you may be at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other cognitive health problems.
Increased Mortality Risk
Studies show that social isolation leads to an increased risk of mortality, which is likely due to its physical and cognitive health effects. Those who are at an increased risk of conditions like heart disease or Alzheimer’s are also more likely to have a shorter lifespan.
Seniors who are isolated and lonely also may not receive medical care as easily as those who have regular contact with others. For example, if you live alone and cannot drive, you may have a much harder time getting to your doctor than someone who lives with family members who can arrange transportation for them. Sometimes, friends and family urge a senior loved one to seek medical care when they otherwise wouldn’t.
The depression associated with loneliness in the elderly could play a role, too. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle is difficult when you have depression, and the condition can make it hard to feel motivated to schedule a doctor’s appointment even if you have concerning medical symptoms.
How to Reduce Social Isolation and Loneliness
For many seniors, finding more opportunities for social interaction is the key to improving their health. It’s not always easy to stay connected to friends and family, though.
Creating a routine can be a great way to maintain regular contact with your loved ones. You could schedule a weekly video chat with your friends, or you could plan to see your children or siblings at the same time every week. Social interaction doesn’t typically happen by accident, especially for older adults. Just like you plan ahead to run errands or complete other tasks, you can add social events to your daily, weekly, or monthly schedule to make sure you’re spending enough quality time with friends and family.
You can make new friends at any age, too. Check out your local community center or senior center to find out about classes, clubs, or other events that offer a chance for you to meet new people. Many older adults find their best friends after retirement, so it’s always possible to make meaningful connections with people in your community.
If you’re concerned about the effects of loneliness and isolation on yourself or an elderly loved one, consider reaching out to a therapist. Counseling is a valuable opportunity to have regular contact with someone, and it’s a chance to practice your cognitive skills and work on emotional goals. Loneliness can be a painful experience for seniors, but there are always resources available for support.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling offers therapy services for older adults facing isolation, loneliness, depression, and other mental health concerns. To learn more about our services or connect with a counselor in your area, contact us today.