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How to End the Senior Loneliness Epidemic

The more we learn about the impact of isolation on health, the more crucial it becomes that we take action

By Melanie Haiken | Caring.com | July 25, 2013

Think back to the last time you were stuck in a grocery checkout line, waiting impatiently as an older woman told the cashier about her latest doctor's appointment. Would you have felt differently if you'd known that the two-minute conversation was the only social contact the woman would have all week? 
 
According to AARP, isolation among adults 50 and older is a growing epidemic, thanks in part to the changing face of American society:

  • 45 percent of adults over 65 are divorced, separated or widowed.
  • 42 percent of Americans over 65 are disabled in some way.
  • 28 percent of those over 65 — and 46 percent of women — live alone.
  • Americans who reach 65 today can expect to live, on average, an additional 20 years.
 
The Lonely Die Sooner
 
Numerous recent studies have linked loneliness with both poor health and early death. Analyzing data from the National Institute on Aging's Health and Retirement Study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, geriatrician Carla Perissinotto of the University of California, San Francisco, found that adults age 60 or older who identified themselves as lonely were 59 percent more likely to experience decline in their ability to perform daily activities and had a 45 percent higher likelihood of dying. Over all, 22.8 percent of participants who described themselves as lonely or isolated died during the six-year study period; an additional 25 percent experienced significant declines in health. Among subjects who said they were happy or satisfied with their social lives, 14.2 percent died during the same period and 12.5 percent had major declines in health.
 
(MORE: Why We Fear Aging More Than We Should)

"Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice," Perissinotto wrote in her paper. "However, loneliness may be as important a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors."

It should be noted that the average age of the participants in Perissinotto's analysis was 71, not necessarily an age many of us associate with isolated elderly. This highlights the concern that, as additional boomers enter their retirement years, loneliness may become an increasingly serious public health issue. More prone to divorce and geographic separation from immediate family members than previous generations, many retired boomers may lack the support of strong social networks.
 
This type of separation from friends and family appears to be especially predictive of premature death. For a study published in March by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers followed 6,500 people age 52 and older for eight years. They found that physical isolation – defined as spending little time with family or friends – was more strongly linked with early death than loneliness.
 
(MORE: Retiring Later Could Help You Fend Off Alzheimer's)

The effects of lacking a partner or spouse in old age have been well documented, but we are still learning more about the impact. A disturbing study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry found that older adults who lived alone or were no longer married were 70 to 80 percent more likely to develop dementia than those who were married or lived with others.

The same study found that older people who described themselves as lonely, regardless of living status, were twice as likely to contract dementia than others over a three-year period. "Feeling lonely, rather than being alone, is associated with an increased risk of clinical dementia in later life and can be considered a major risk factor that, independently of vascular disease, depression and other confounding factors, deserves clinical attention," the report concluded. "Feelings of loneliness may signal" an early onset stage of dementia.

(MORE: Is Your Hometown a Place to Grow Old? Mine Is)

Finally, a recent Brigham Young University study analyzed the health records of more than 300,000 adults and found that loneliness was as strong a predictor of early death as alcoholism and a 15-cigarettes-a-day smoking habit, and a stronger predictor than obesity or a sedentary lifestyle. "Physicians, health professionals, educators and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality," the researchers said.
 
5 Ways to Ease Isolation
 
If you're worried about an older relative, friend or neighbor who seems to be at risk of social isolation (or if you fear that you may one day face that situation yourself), these five suggestions could make a difference:
  1. Look for new living situations. Most of us want to age in place, in our homes, as long as possible. But staying in your home after friends and family move away, especially if you no longer drive, can lead to isolation (particularly for women, who are more likely to live alone at older ages than men). Conversely, older adults who move into senior living communities where conversation and social activities are easy to access often say they wish they'd moved sooner.
  2. Join a support group. The ability to talk with others who share a health condition or other concern is one of the best ways to cope with depression, fear and loneliness. Grief and bereavement groups are an important resource for widows and widowers who might otherwise trend toward isolation. Such groups can also offer valuable information and support to seek help and new treatment options. University College of London researchers cited a lack of help accessing health information and care as a possible factor contributing to the premature death rate for socially isolated adults. Online support groups can provide some of the same help for those who have trouble getting to in-person sessions.
  3. Solve transportation issues. If an older loved one has stopped driving, transportation can quickly become a major obstacle to his or her social life. But this doesn't have to be the case. In most areas, excellent transportation options for seniors are available. Contacting your local agency on aging is a good first step.
  4. Get into social media. In-person contact is best, but Facebook is easy to use and can help older adults keep up with friends and family, as well as find out about interesting local events and see others' recommendations for movies, books and music. College and professional alumni networks can also help people locate and reconnect with old friends.
  5. Sign up for a class or activity. College courses, exercise groups, craft circles – you name it, it's out there. Grab schedules from community centers, adult education sites or community colleges to get a sense of the options. A knitting circle at a local yarn shop, a dart tournament at the local tavern or the weekly swing dance at a senior center all get people out of the house and engaged. And yes, there's always bingo.

Melanie Haiken is a senior editor at Caring.com. She has covered health and family-related issues for numerous magazines and websites and worked for the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco.