We all know that poor nutrition, lack of exercise and smoking are all leading causes of health problems, with lots of attention being placed on these areas. However, you may be unaware that there is another often overlooked culprit that can be just as deadly, especially for older people.
Chronic loneliness is making us ill. Even worse than that, research has shown that it’s actually killing us. Studies have shown that consistently feeling isolated and alone as we get older significantly increases the risk of premature death.
Chronic isolation and loneliness has been linked to the development of a range of health problems, including heart disease, stroke, low immunity to infection and disease and depression.
Experts from the University of California believe that loneliness triggers the “fight or flight” response in the body, leading to inflammation and a reduced ability to fight viruses and bacteria due to changes to white blood cell production.
A study by Bingham Young University in Utah found that loneliness had the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes or consistently drinking more than the recommended units of alcohol.
It’s more dangerous than diabetes, and even obesity. High blood pressure that is exaggerated by isolation is thought to be more dangerous than if it is triggered by medical conditions such as diabetes. This is because it has been linked to hardening of the arteries and raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which it’s feared can encourage high blood pressure to the extent that it is a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke.
The risk of premature death relating to loneliness becomes even more of a concern than obesity from middle age onwards. In fact, you could be twice as likely to die early if you are socially isolated, with studies indicating that loneliness increases the risk factor by 14 per cent (compared to 7 per cent for obesity).
Loneliness is also believed to affect sleep; both in terms of quality of sleep and insomnia. Isolated older people are therefore more likely to have trouble getting to sleep and will often suffer from broken sleep from waking up during the night.
Why It Happens
2013 research from Just Better Care found that isolation and loneliness was the biggest concern for the older Australians still living at home in their national survey.
Contrary to popular opinion, you don’t need to live alone to experience social isolation. It’s definitely possible to feel lonely even if you do actually see people on a regular basis.
Of course, being physically alone is often a big factor in isolation, particularly after bereavement or relocation. Retiring from work can lead to social isolation, not least because we no longer see our former colleagues during the working week. This can be compounded if retirement also involves a move to a new area or country in which you are essentially trying to build a new social network from scratch. A “dream” move to live near the beach or abroad can result in chronic loneliness, especially if family members do not live close by.
The good news is that the negative health issues associated with loneliness and isolation can be stopped by gaining a social network and becoming more socially active. Getting involved in volunteering and courses or classes are good ways to meet new people and stem the effects of chronic isolation for older people.