For Seniors, Loneliness Comes at a Price
Feelings of loneliness can have an adverse effect on people of all ages. However, a recently published study shows that for seniors, loneliness can lead to a decrease in mobility and even death.
Geriatricians at the University of California, San Francisco, polled 1,604 adults aged sixty or older every two years from 2002 to 2008. The questions asked were about their social interactions in order to quantify their feelings of loneliness. Over the course of the study, the number of adults who reported feeling lonely, which was 43%, did not change significantly. However, by 2008 almost 25% of adults who reported feelings of isolation and unhappiness also mentioned a decrease in their ability to perform activities of daily living, such as bathing, dressing and standing up. In contrast, only 12.5% of adults who did not feel lonely experienced such a decline in function. Isolated seniors were also 45% more likely to die than those who felt as if they had meaningful social connections, even after the researchers accounted for the health and financial security of those questioned.
According to the study, 62.5% of the seniors who felt lonely were also married. It is also understood that people can experience feelings of isolation even if they are in a committed relationship and social environment. Feelings of acceptance are impacted by the depth and meaning of the relationships that people have. As noted by Dr. Perissinotto, lead author of the paper, such interactions have a profound impact on older adults’ health, well-being and longevity.
What remains to be determined are the biological processes that are affected by feelings of loneliness and why they are so sensitive in older adults. Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London, says there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that social isolation can alter immune response as well as disrupt the signaling pathways of stress hormones, both of which present health risks to older people.
With these results in mind, the most effective measure that friends and family members of seniors can take is to engage with them. Often times, as Dr. Perissinotto says, just realizing that someone is listening and cares can make a difference.