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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:
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:
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: https://homecareassistance.com/blog/social-programs-answer-seniors-caregivers.