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How loneliness drains the aging brain and what can be done about it

In his hit “Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel),” legendary crooner Roy Orbison hits close to home regarding the heartache of being and feeling alone: “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight…only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right.”

Yes, it’s true — feeling alone is no fun. But the fact remains that many American seniors spend most their lives lonely and isolated from the outside world. Sure, everyone enjoys a little alone time. However, for too many seniors, remaining isolated does more than diminish joie de vivre. It can actually increase the risk of disease — and may even precipitate an early death.

The Science Behind Excess Alone Time on Senior Brains

A 2010 survey sponsored by AARP, referenced in the Harvard Health blog, revealed that 35% of American adults aged 45 and up felt lonely. 1 What’s more, their sense of isolation increased over time — 56% of the lonely respondents “had fewer friends at the time of the survey than five years earlier.”

The evidence is mounting that loneliness and social isolation actually affect the way our brains function. In the same article, Christopher Bullock, MD writes that when it comes to loneliness, “we now know it is not just a feeling, but a condition that has a very real effect on the body.”

A study conducted in the United Kingdom found “that hundreds of thousands of people had not spoken to a friend or a relative in a month — that’s a lot of silence in your life.

“Humans are social creatures,” Bullock goes on. “Among ourselves we form all kinds of complex alliances, affiliations, attachments, loves, and hates. If those connections break down, an individual risks health impacts throughout the body.”

A Clear Connection to Senior Health Issues

According to Dr. Bullock, recent research demonstrates the potentially serious impact of isolation on health, including:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Decreased cognitive and executive function (there is initial evidence of increased amyloid burden in the brains of the lonely)
  • A 26% increase in the risk of premature death from all causes
  • Decrease in the quality of sleep
  • Increased chronic inflammation and decreased inflammatory control (linked to the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia)
  • Decreased immune function leading to vulnerability to many types of disease
  • Increased depressive symptoms
  • Increased fearfulness of social situations (sometimes resulting in paranoia)
  • Increased severity of strokes (with shortened survival)
  • An overall decrease in the subjective sense of well-being

The Loneliness, Disease Connection is Nothing New

Studies began documenting the correlation between loneliness and illness some thirty years ago. Bullock reports that “social isolation was a major risk factor for mortality, illness, and injury, and in fact was as significant a risk factor as smoking, obesity, or high blood pressure.”

Other studies link loneliness with inflammation and neurological changes. For instance, lonely people experience dementia more frequently and risk premature death. 2 And in a paper shared at the American Psychological Association meeting, Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstead suggested that “loneliness is a bigger health risk than obesity.”

Conquering the Isolation Curse

While loneliness is very common, treating it is often challenging. But seeing as how a recent University of Chicago study concludes that “loneliness can make you sick,” researchers are increasingly drawn to figuring out this “invisible epidemic." 3

Here are six ways to help lonely seniors (and their aging brains) cope:

  1. Get moving. The longer someone has felt lonely the more difficult it can be to do something as simple as smiling and saying hello. But finding connections with other people is absolutely essential to alleviating a sense of isolation.
  1. Reach out. Feeling disconnected with other people and telling ourselves we have nothing in common pretty much guarantees loneliness will continue. Taking a risk and reaching out “may lead you to a connection or commonality that will make you feel less alone.” 4 Strong relationships can help build your health.
  1. Think outside your box. A major consequence of isolation is that we think too much about our personal plight. Switching our frame of reference to what others might be going through can help lighten our own loneliness.
  1. Hunt down a new hobby. Those of us who feel cut off from the outside world can easily fall prey to inertia. So get up and get out there and just do something. Whether it’s an exercise program or a pottery class, becoming engaged with a new pastime just might make you happier. Crafting can be one easy and engaging way to advance your cognitive skills and participate in a new activity.
  1. Show up. People who spend extended periods of time on their own often shy away from social functions. Try accepting an invitation to meet for lunch or coffee. If not, even sitting in a public place and reading can be surprisingly stimulating.
  1. Feed your brain. From crossword puzzles to jigsaw puzzles to enrolling in a course at a community college or even online, active brains are more likely to be happy, healthy brains.

Read: Love with the Proper Senior

The People Prescription

Dr. Bullock believes “that people are anxiety relievers.” He says that people are good for you and that finding ways to be around people is a smart way to go through life. His final thought is that “it is only within the complex and gratifying and sometimes challenging ecology of human relationships that we can truly thrive.” All of which sounds like an intelligent way to use your brain.

If you or a loved one are feeling lonely and isolated, learn how social programs can help both seniors and caregivers stay connected to their communities, by reading:



Learn more about our senior caregiving services here.

About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

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