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Loneliness Can Impact Seniors’ Health

Lonely elderly woman
Those who feel lonely face even greater risks than those who do not have many close friends, reveals research from the University of Chicago

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September 23, 2011

Loneliness manifests itself in many harmful ways for seniors. Various studies have revealed that seniors who are lonely face an increased risk of depression as well as potential health problems such as high blood pressure. The value of companionship cannot be underestimated.

Q. I am so lonely since my wife of 52 years passed away. Someone the other day said that loneliness can be bad for your health. Is that true?

Indeed it is. Those who feel lonely face even greater risks than those who do not have many close friends, reveals research from the University of Chicago. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don't have the same health problems.

The study is the first to examine the relationships between health and two different types of isolation. Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need.

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people's willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, explained Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging. Among the study's findings:

The most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared with those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated. Older adults who feel least isolated are five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those who feel most isolated, regardless of their actual level of social connectedness.

A growing list of additional studies points to the deadly physical impact of loneliness on seniors. One study says loneliness is a major risk factor in increasing blood pressure in older Americans and could increase the risk of death and stroke or heart disease. Although this study was of people between the ages of 50 and 68, the problem increases with added years, which indicates it is more severe for seniors age 70 and older.

Scholars found that lonely people have blood pressure readings that are as much as 30 points higher than in non-lonely people, even when other factors such as depressive symptoms or perceived stress are taken into account, according to Louise Hawkley, Senior Research Scientist with the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, and John Cacioppo, the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

Why not see your doctor about whether or not you are suffering from depression. If so, your physician may prescribe medication or counseling. Then try to re-connect with others through a volunteer organization where you can share interests with those of like mind. Then consider hiring a companion such as a CAREGiverSM from the local Home Instead Senior Care® office. Or, if you’re in good health, be a CAREGiver yourself. It’s a great way to help others who may be as lonely as you.

For more information about the isolation study, visit http://news.uchicago.edu/news.php?asset_id=1571.

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  1. February 14, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Posted by Ruthie Vandegriff

    Thanks for your insight!!

    Reply

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