Social connections are essential for health and well-being, especially as people get older. Loneliness and social isolation are quickly becoming public health concerns as the population ages. While loneliness and social isolation can occur at any age, studies have shown that older adults often spend more time alone, leaving them more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness – about 50% of people over the age of 60 are at risk of social isolation, and about a third of older adults will experience loneliness later in life. This is cause for concern because both loneliness and social isolation negatively impact health and quality of life.
Loneliness vs Social Isolation
While loneliness and social isolation are related concepts, they are distinctly different. Loneliness is a feeling of being alone or separated from others. On the other hand, social isolation is the lack of social connections and interactions with family, friends, or individuals in the community. As people age, they are at an increased risk for both loneliness and social isolation because of changes to their health and social connections that occur with aging – health issues such as memory, hearing, and vision loss, mobility issues, and the loss of friends and family, among others.
Connection Between Social Isolation, Loneliness and Health
People that are lonely or socially isolated are more likely to be admitted to a nursing home or hospital. Additionally, individuals that feel lonely or socially isolated often lead sedentary lives, partake in unhealthy habits such as drinking and smoking, and also have poor sleep quality. Further, loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of several health conditions including:
- Heart disease.
- High blood pressure.
- Decreased immune system function.
- Depression and/or anxiety.
- Cognitive decline (including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease)
- Premature death.
Risks for Loneliness and Social Isolation
Various risks have been identified that put an individual at an increased risk of loneliness and social isolation, including:
- Illness or death of a loved one.
- Separation from family and/or friends.
- Living alone.
- Decreased mobility.
- Worsening hearing or vision problems.
- Lack of transportation.
- Struggling with money.
- Having a limited social support system.
- Living in a rural area.
- Having a language barrier.
- Having mental health issues.
- Lack of participation in social activities.
- Suffering from discrimination (based on age, ethnic, racial, sexual orientation, etc.).
Benefits of Staying Socially Connected
Research has shown that individuals that are more socially connected have better mental and heart health, immunological functioning, and cognitive abilities. One study in particular, the Harvard Medical School Nurses’ Health Study, found that being socially connected leads to improved health, satisfaction with life, and longevity. Why is this? One theory is that social connections help to control the stress-response system. High levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, have a negative impact on both physical and emotional health; however, having supportive social connections helps to lower cortisol levels and keep the stress-response system balanced.
How to Maintain Social Connections
There are many things you can do to decrease the health risks of loneliness and social isolation, including:
- Getting enough sleep (about 7 to 9 hours per night).
- Regularly exercising.
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
- Engaging in activities that you enjoy.
- Learning coping strategies to manage stress.
And it’s important to continue to connect with other people as research has shown that individuals that participate in meaningful activities that they enjoy have a feeling of purpose and engaging these activities can help to improve your mood, cognitive function and overall well-being.
Some ideas for staying socially connected include:
- Get to know your neighbours.
- Take a class to learn something new – you might meet friends that share similar interests.
- Take time each day to stay in touch with your friends and family – this may be a quick phone call, video chat, text, or email.
- Send a letter or card to your loved ones.
- Schedule a coffee or lunch date with a friend or family member.
- Consider adopting a pet, as they make great companions, if you have the means to take care of them.
- Join a physical fitness group – walking groups or swimming classes are a great start!
- Consider joining a church or other faith-based organization.
- Check out community/senior centers and libraries for upcoming events that might interest you.
- Volunteer in your community – there are lots of opportunities available at local schools, food banks, hospitals, etc.
If you’re feeling lonely or socially isolated, it’s important to talk to your doctor and thoroughly express your feelings. Also inform them about any recent life-changing events such as a retirement or loss of a loved one. It’s important to remember that not all people experience loneliness and social isolation in the same way, or to the same level, and therefore your doctor will have to take all of your information to tailor a treatment plan to your needs to improve your health and quality of life.
You can find more senior health resources including online fitness classes and prevention advice at the Physio Ed. website, PhysioEd.com “Active for a Lifetime.”