Nowadays, society has more ways to communicate with each other than we could have ever imagined. Emails, text messages, social media- all allow us to send and receive messages within seconds even from across the globe. How is it then, that despite all this ease in communication, studies show that we as a society are lonelier than ever before? This texting and social media culture is changing the way people relate to society, family, and friends. Staring into our screens, watching others live their “happy” lives, or at least what they want us to think is a happy life, leaves many people feeling insignificant, depressed, and alone.
Many people of all ages experience loneliness either as a result of living alone, a lack of close family ties or close friendships, reduced connections with their culture of origin, or an inability to actively take part in community activities. As we grow older, the likelihood of these loneliness inducing instances increases while at the same time, age-related losses increase as well; family members, friends, and spouses pass away or move to assisted living facilities. Losses such as this not only cause depression for the survived aging family member, but they can also decrease one's desire to maintain other important relationships, isolating that individual and leaving them feeling hopelessly depressed.
A study conducted by UCSF on the effects of loneliness on the elderly shows that the increased susceptibility for loneliness in seniors has far bigger consequences than simply feeling sad though. The study surveyed 1,604 participants over the age of 60 with a mean age of 71 years old and made some significant findings that link loneliness in aging adults with serious health conditions. In typical medical models, most don’t think of "feelings" as having an affect on one’s overall health, however, in this case feeling lonely has been proven to have detrimental effects on the health of the elderly as researches from UCSF found that, “…loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline.”
If that isn't scary enough to at least make us consider spending more time with our aging loved ones, here is a summary of findings from the UCSF study as well as a few other resources on how loneliness impacts seniors:
Those who identified themselves as lonely individuals had a statistically significant 59 percent greater risk of decline. For death, the risk was 45 percent higher.
As mentioned in an article published by Forbes, "There are literally hundreds of ways that this increased risk of death occurs, from hardening of arteries to depressing the immune system to corroding the brain. In lonely people who see the world as a threatening place, their immune systems choose to focus on bacteria rather than viral threats. Without the antiviral protection and the body's antibodies produced against various ills, the result means a person has less ability to fight cancers and other illnesses. Those who are socially isolated suffer from higher all-cause mortality, and higher rates of heart disease, infection and even cancer."
You don’t have to live alone to feel lonely. One of the most surprising findings of the UCSF team’s analysis was that loneliness does not necessarily have a direct correlation with living alone. In fact, out of the 43% of surveyed lonely adults, only 18% of those individuals lived alone.
Loneliness is, in fact contagious. Older adults who feel lonely are more prone to behave in ways that make others not want to be around them. Psychologists from the University of Chicago who analyzed data from the Farmingham Heart Study, a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular study, found that lonely seniors have a tendency to isolate themselves further by pushing people away and losing interest in engaging with others.
Now more than ever, due to the increase in our aging population, doctors and other professionals that work with seniors find interest in identifying the different factors that cause adults to become functionally impaired and at increased risk for nursing home admission. This means the focus should go deeper than physical health, but include social and environmental risks such as loneliness as risk factors for aging adults.
Now that we know the risks, there can be a greater effort to incorporate more comprehensive social care into the lives of the elderly. As friends a family, we need to be aware just how important a visit, a weekly dinner, or even a fall call can be for our aging loved ones. I’ve been having dinner with my Grandmother, Mother, and Aunt every week since I was in High School. I have to admit, there were some weeks I found myself “too busy” to go, but knowing what I know now, knowing that I can contribute to my families good health by simply being present, will change the way I look at quality time forever.