How Social Isolation Affects Your Health… And What to Do About It
“Would you consider to become my friend. I’m 90 years old - live alone. All my friends have passed away. I’m so lonesome and scared. Please I pray for someone.”
The woman did manage to find friendship, but her situation is not uncommon among the elderly. Illness and lack of mobility means many older people have problem getting out and meeting friends or other people.
The result is social isolation, and it can have serious impacts on how we age.
Social Isolation Causes Poor Health
Loneliness also tends to affect older women more than men:
- Twenty-eight percent of North Americans over 65 live alone; for women, it's 46 percent.
- While 72 percent of men over 65 are married, only 45 percent of women are married; 37 percent are widows.
- Almost half of women over 75 live alone.
Research shows that people who spend long periods without social contact are also at risk of poorer health. One reason is that loneliness leads to increased rates of depression, which can cause people to forego "self care", such as eating right and taking medicine.
According to a study from Brigham Young University, loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is even more damaging to your to body than obesity and diabetes.
For example, social isolation can increase the risk of:
- Heart attacks.
- Alzheimer's disease (by 64 per cent).
- Complications from cancer
“If someone reports feeling lonely, they are more likely to lose their independence and they are at greater risk of dying solely from being lonely,” said Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, in her 2015 study on loneliness and ageing. Perissinotto and her team also found that loneliness does not necessarily correlate with living alone. Her study found 43 percent of surveyed older adults felt lonely, yet only 18 percent lived alone.
In an analysis of 148 studies focusing on the relationship between social isolation and mortality, it was found that having more supportive social relationships was related to a decreased mortality risk, according to McMaster University.
Living Alone Does Not Always Equal Social Isolation
It's believed the impact of loneliness on an elderly patient is different from the effects of depression. While depression is linked with a lack enjoyment, energy and motivation, loneliness can be felt in people who are fully functional but feel empty or desolate.
"People who are 80 years and older say that up to 80 per cent of the time they feel lonely — it's a major problem," clinical psychologist Ami Rokach said in a recent interview. Loneliness itself doesn't directly cause health problems, according to Rokach. Instead she explains that depression, desperation, feeling unappreciated and unwanted can cause seniors to neglect their health or resort to unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking, drinking or not taking their medication.
How Caregivers Can Help
If you're a family member living apart from an aging parent or loved one, getting help from a caregiver can help reduce loneliness. A caregiver may be tasked with simply helping perform basic errands, managing prescriptions, and providing general conversation.
However, a recent report by the British Columbia Senior's Advocate states that provincial government care for seniors is "short-staffed."
Luckily, private home-care providers can give some relief for a straining public system. Home health care workers can help provide not only compionship, but also help with daily tasks, getting outside to run errands and practice "self-care", such as eating right and taking medication.