Of course loneliness is not linked to age. You can be lonely at any age. But recent research has found an increase in loneliness in old age. Is this true and does loneliness in old age affect how we age?
Loneliness in Old Age
I am sure that so of us have been affected by loneliness at one point or another, regardless of our age. While it was probably only a temporary loneliness, you probably remember how you felt at the time. You craved the interaction that you weren't getting with friends. Maybe you moved to a new area? Perhaps you lost a friend or family member. Events in your life like going through a breakup or even after spending a week in bed with the flu. All of these can cause you loneliness. It's terrible – that feeling that loneliness brings.
Sadly, this feeling of loneliness increases as we age. Older people are much more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness. The affects these feelings can have are much worse too.
Our brains have evolved so we depend upon our social interactions. We love to be around others as much as we can. As social creatures, it turns out that being lonely could be affecting our aging process. It can also have an impact on your overall well-being.
We're facing an epidemic of loneliness and millions of people are suffering. This is something that crosses the lines of gender, race, and even age, although our elderly community has it the worst.
Loneliness in Old Age is More Than a Feeling
We may not be able to quantify exactly what loneliness really is. It is something that is subjective. What we do know, is that it is much more than just a feeling. It is just as harmful as smoking and may be even more harmful than obesity.
According to a study from the American Medical Association, lonely people were at greater risk than those who were not lonely. Researchers found that there were other adverse conditions to loneliness. Lonely seniors over 60 were found to have experienced decline in other functionality, including bathing, dressing, walking, and going up and down the stairs.
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Lonely seniors are also more likely to develop a variety of medical conditions, such as heart problems, diabetes, and hypertension. Seniors who are isolated are almost 30% more likely to develop depression and more likely to die early.
The Effects of Loneliness
A 2010 study from the University of Chicago found that in people over 50, loneliness causes a significant increase in blood pressure. The risk rises with age, but a 30 point increase in blood pressure is not something that should be ignored.
While we typically fight high blood pressure with weight loss and exercise our social life, or lack thereof, could be defeating the purpose. In truth, as fit as you are and as well as you eat, you are just as at risk of high blood pressure as your friends who do none of those things but seek out human interaction wherever possible.
Additionally, loneliness impacts your immune system. A joint study from the University of Chicago and the University of California, found that loneliness actually leads to abnormalities in the white blood cells crucial for fighting infection. Being isolated socially leaves these cells immature, so instead of fighting infections, these white blood cells reduce your immunity.
Loneliness Can Be Managed
The physical act of aging is enough for people to cope with, but we must think about our emotional aging as well as the physical side of things. A lot needs to be done to support our aging communities, but it's important to start building meaningful friendships earlier in life.
We are so caught up in our careers that the majority of our socializations revolve around the workplace. So, when retirement comes calling we don't have a support network to rely on.
If this describes you, make moves now to make friends outside of your workplace. Whether you join a community class, start volunteering or find a religious group to connect with – it's all about making friends with people who share your interests and values and making time for them.
If this is applicable to an elderly relative you can help them get out there and make friends. Most importantly, it's up to you to make time to visit them regularly. If you can't make it in person you should be making every effort to have video chats or phone calls to ensure they are getting some human interaction on a daily basis.