Many older Americans spend their days alone, isolated from companionship and without social interaction. While we all know that loneliness is not a happy state, we did not have much evidence of the significant impact of isolation. A recent study by the University of Michigan reveals that chronic loneliness can shorten your life as much as smoking. Here are some things you need to know about how loneliness can affect your health.
The Study Respondents
The study asked Americans nationwide about their levels of companionship and social isolation, and how they feel about those factors. The survey also inquired about each person’s health status and health behaviors, such as diet, exercise, sleep habits and tobacco use. The participants were between the ages of 50 and 80.
How Chronic Loneliness Affects the Health of Older Americans
According to the survey, being lonely on a regular basis can harm seniors by:
- Decreasing life expectancy,
- Deteriorating memory,
- Weakening physical well-being, and
- Increasing the incidence of mental health issues.
Survey respondents who reported that their mental health was fair or poor, were more than eight times more likely to feel isolated than other participants. The rate of fair or poor health was more than twice as high among people who felt socially isolated than other people in the study.
The Chicken or the Egg?
The tricky bit is that some health problems can cause a person to feel more isolated, and isolation can lead to health problems. A person with hearing loss might feel left out at a social gathering, because he cannot hear well enough to participate in the conversations and activities. Out of frustration, he might stop attending social functions. The difficulty in getting around because of the lack of sidewalks, curb cuts, and wheelchair access might also cause a person with mobility issues to have fewer opportunities for interactions.
Healthy habits tend to go hand-in-hand with social activity. For example, older Americans who said that they have a nutritious diet, exercise regularly and get plenty of sleep, were less likely to report feeling lonely or isolated. On the other hand, those who smoke or use tobacco were more likely to say that they felt a lack of companionship and that they felt isolated, than non-smokers and people who do not use tobacco.
The Good News
Nearly three-fourths of survey respondents said they have frequent social contact with people who do not live with them, including neighbors, friends and relatives. Almost a third interact socially every day.
With today’s technology, a person who has difficulty leaving the house, can video chat with loved ones who are hundreds of miles away or enjoy an event through the use of VR (virtual reality) or AR (augmented reality) devices. While electronic participation is not the same as being there, this level of interaction is better than not being connected at all. Many people were critical of telephones when they were a new invention, because the devices were not the same as a face-to-face conversation.
The participants with the lowest rates of loneliness and isolation were:
- Still working,
- Had an annual household income of more than $60,000,
- Did not have children in the home, and
- Did have at least one other adult in the home.
University of Michigan. “Loneliness and Health.” (accessed April 10, 2019) https://www.healthyagingpoll.org/report/loneliness-and-health