It’s a scientific fact that points to a definite mind-body connection.
Loneliness has become a public health epidemic, according to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. More than a third of respondents in an AARP survey of adults over the age of 45 were categorized as lonely.
Given the disconnectedness of our world, it’s not surprising that rates of loneliness have increased in recent decades. Our modern society relies less on its “village,” with older people often living alone while family moves away. Although the influence of social media is still up for debate, some experts believe older adults who are used to phone calls and in-person visits don’t feel social media helps them keep meaningful connections.
This mental health problem has been shown to translate into physical health. A well-known review of research found that loneliness (the feeling of being lonely), social isolation and living alone were all independent risk factors for early mortality, with an increased likelihood of death ranging from 26 percent to 32 percent. Some estimates say that loneliness is a greater risk factor for premature mortality than obesity, and comparable to the risk of smoking.
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Our biological reaction to loneliness
Some researchers say our body’s physiological response to loneliness is based in evolution. Humans are simply built to survive in groups.
In prehistoric times, isolation could be deadly, so our body ramps up the “fight or flight” response, which leads to climbing blood pressure, disrupted sleep, the release of stress hormones and inflammation. Over a long period of time, this state can lead to increased risk for cardiovascular and other diseases.
When older people live alone, there’s more of a chance they will be injured when no one is around to help them. Also, without anyone constantly monitoring their state of health, they might not notice that they are having symptoms that need to be checked out by a doctor.
They’re also less likely to take care of themselves, and poor hygiene and diet can also lead to disease. Those living alone may forget to take medication or have no one to take them to doctor’s appointments — or even the grocery store.
Lack of socialization
On a basic level, it seems apparent that humans value social interaction and feel good afterwards. These positive feelings reduce stress, a risk factor for many diseases.
Research has shown that married people live longer (assuming the marriage is a happy one) and are even more likely to survive when diagnosed with cancer. Friends can also be valuable for creating meaning in your life, which is reflected in your physical health.
What you can do to reduce loneliness:
Studies show that those who volunteer for altruistic reasons or for social connection live longer than those who don’t volunteer.
“I like to encourage my older patients to get involved in their communities and more specifically, to volunteer,” said Jennifer Rose Boozer, DO, clinical assistant professor of family medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and family medicine physician at Keck Medicine of USC’s Glendale and Pasadena locations. “It not only benefits those they are serving, but also helps keep them active, combats depression, helps create a social network and may help them live longer and happier lives.”
Consider a retirement community or assisted living.
These aren’t the “nursing homes” of yore and can have greater benefits than living alone. Such communities can help older people rediscover their “village,” make new friendships and get involved in activities.
Search out hobbyist or religious groups.
You may connect with like-minded people at a gardening club, reading group or church center.
Help your neighbor.
You can help to reduce loneliness in others by reaching out to those in your neighborhood who live alone. Bring over food and spend an hour chatting — it just might save their life.
By Tina Donvito
If you’re experiencing loneliness or social isolation, make an appointment with one of our psychological specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.