It’s no surprise to most of us that loneliness has become an epidemic. In fact, those with mental health issues experience loneliness at an alarming rate. The one group most affected, however, appears to be the elderly, with millions of older adults across the Unites States feeling lonely. Major health risks such as heart disease and dementia often come along with this loneliness.
In October 2018, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked a national sample of adults age 50-80 about their health, health behaviors, and experiences and feelings related to companionship and social isolation. The results are sobering.
The poll explored many aspects of social connection and health and asked about feelings of companionship, feelings of social isolation, and social contact among people age 50 to 80. It found:
- Those who were unemployed, lived in lower-income households, lived alone and/or had one or more children living with them were more likely to say they lacked companionship.
- Living alone was highly associated with feeling lonely; 60 percent of those who lived alone reported feeling a lack of companionship, and 41 percent felt isolated.
- 36 percent of women said they lacked companionship often or some of the time, compared with 31 percent of men.
- 26 percent of adults who said they lacked companionship also said they were in fair or poor physical health, while 13 percent of people who said they hardly ever lacked companionship reported fair or poor physical health.
- Of those who reported feeling isolated, 17 percent had fair/poor mental health, compared to only 2 percent of those who hardly ever felt isolated.
- One in five respondents who reported feeling socially isolated said they had fair or poor hearing compared to about one in 10 of those who said they hardly ever feel isolated.
Poll director Preeti Malani, M.D., points out that a growing body of research points to strong connections between health and loneliness – and to positive effects on health from increased social contact. She says:
“As we grow older, and mobility or hearing becomes more of a barrier, these poll data show the importance of maintaining and strengthening our ties to other people. It also suggests that caregivers, spouses and partners, adult children and others involved in older adults’ lives have a role to play in encouraging and facilitating these connections.”
Not surprisingly, the poll indicates there is a connection between loneliness and physical and/or mental health. The participants with good health habits were less likely to report feeling a lack of companionship or feeling isolated from others. Those who responded and said they exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep every day or several times a week were less likely to report a lack of companionship and feeling isolated than those who engaged in these health behaviors once a week or less. Also, respondents who smoked or used tobacco were more likely to feel a lack of companionship or feel more isolated than those who did not use tobacco.
We already know that loneliness can impact older adults’ memories, physical well-being, and mental health. Additionally, it can shorten life expectancy, possibly even more so than being overweight or sedentary. Loneliness can lead to health problems, but health problems can also lead to loneliness, as in the case of hearing loss or mobility limitations discussed above.
Those of us who have elderly family, friends, and neighbors need to be aware of these serious effects of loneliness and help identify older adults who might need assistance. Encouraging and supporting meaningful social connections and more frequent activities such as volunteerism and participation in community or religious groups can be valuable. Home visiting programs, when appropriate, can go a long way toward mitigating loneliness and its associated health challenges. As our population continues to age, helping each other stay active and engaged will also help us stay healthy.
Haiken, M. (n.d.) The Health Risks of Loneliness and Senior Neglect: 3 Major Risks, and 4 Ways to Help. Caring.com. Retrieved from https://www.caring.com/articles/aging-and-loneliness-epidemic
National Poll on Loneliness and Aging. (2019, March). University of Michigan. Retrieved from https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/report/loneliness-and-health
Only the Lonely: Poll Shows Many Older Adults, Especially Those with Health Issues, Feel Isolated [blog post]. (2019, February). Newswise. Retrieved from https://www.newswise.com/articles/view/708764/?sc=dwhn