Isolation and loneliness are getting more attention these days from groups such as the AARP Foundation and their newly formed organization Connect 2 Affect. While its important to understand that isolation is the objective lack of social access and resources and loneliness is the subjective perception of one’s well-being, they are not mutually exclusive. Studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation have serious health affects.
The National Social Life, Health and Aging Project is supported by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institutes on Health, and the AARP Foundation. Together, they examined existing data on the frequency of loneliness in older adults and produced A Profile of Social Connectedness in Older Adults.
According to the report, social isolation is a bigger problem than you may know:
- Nearly 1 in 5 adults over age 50 is at risk for social isolation
- Subjective feelings of loneliness can increase risk of death from 26% to 45%
- The health affects of prolonged social isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day
- Nearly half of older adults in the U.S. experience some degree of loneliness
Dr. Bill Thomas has, for years, led a culture-change movement to identify, understand, and combat what he calls the three plagues: loneliness, helplessness, and boredom. After taking a position as the medical director of a nursing home, he realized that people were not dying of disease or physical ailments, but diseases of the heart. Anecdotally, he’s known this to be true in his own experience. But, more and more, we’re seeing empirical evidence that these “plagues” contribute to physical ailments and age the body faster.
Take, for example, this study with findings published in The Guardian where researchers found that loneliness was twice as unhealthy as obesity. Tracking more than 2,000 people over the age of 50 found that the loneliest “were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than those that were least lonely.”
There are still more questions to be answered such as why there is no apparent difference in levels of loneliness based on education, work/retirement status, or whether you care for a dependent, but income does appear to affect levels of loneliness. Or, as the AARP Foundation asks, if loneliness is a cause of poor hearing or other physical impairments or if loneliness is the result of the impairments?
More studies are needed to understand and help prevent loneliness in older adults. In the meantime, we’ll share some ways that you can build bridges to social connectedness for you and the older adults in your life. Join us next week for Is loneliness affecting you? Part 2.
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About the Author: Amira T. Fahoum is the Director of Marketing and Director of Operations, Northwest Region for Compass Senior Living located in Eugene, Oregon. Her path to senior living started when she simply decided to be open to possibilities in life. Possibilities are what led her to what is now a career in serving elders and families. Possibilities also led her into the world of becoming a Certified Eden Associate, Certified Validation Worker, Levels I and II, and a licensed Assisted Living Administrator in Oregon. On her journey with Compass, she has found true reward in working with the people that care for others. She lives in Eugene with her husband, Michael, where they enjoy golf, travel, and volunteering.