Loneliness: It Can Be Lethal

lonelinessExtreme loneliness can increase an elderly person’s chance of premature death by 14 percent.[1] According to University of Chicago researchers, the impact of loneliness on premature death is as strong as the impact of the disadvantaged socioeconomic status.1 In fact, social psychologist Dr. John Cacioppo states that this recent research corresponds with a 2010 meta-analysis that proved loneliness to have twice the impact on early death as does obesity.1

Cacioppo and colleagues studied the differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age.1 They found that loneliness’ consequences to health are rather dramatic: feeling isolated can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression, and lower overall well-being.1

It is important for the elderly to avoid the consequences of loneliness, and there are many ways to do so. They should stay in touch with old friends, take part in family traditions, attend social gatherings, and join in on community activities.1 All of this will give them a chance to connect with others and combat loneliness.1 It also allows them to be surrounded by others that care about them—which is most important.1

According to Cacioppo, “We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day, between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being, and early mortality.”1

While some people are happiest when alone, the majority thrive in social situations.1 Evolution encouraged people to work together to survive, leading people to enjoy companionship.1

There are three core dimensions to healthy relationships, identified by Cacioppo and colleagues.1 The first is intimate connectedness.1 This comes from having someone in your life who you feel affirms who you truly are.1 The second is relational connectedness.1 This comes from having face-to-face contact that is mutually rewarding—friends and family.1 The third is collective connectedness.1 This comes from feeling that you are part of a group, beyond individual existence.1

Not only is solitude or physical isolation detrimental, but the subjective sense of being alone is the most destructive.1 The elderly that live alone are not necessarily the most lonely—it is those who are not socially engaged that really are.1

[1] Nauert, R. (2014). Loneliness Can Be Lethal for Seniors. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/02/17/loneliness-can-be-lethal-for-seniors/66020.html

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