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Don't Let Loneliness Shorten Your Life

Take steps to remain socially engaged and active in your golden years.

THE VIEW FROM DUKE

DAN G. BLAZER, MD, PhD, J.P. Gibbons Professor-Emeritus of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences; Professor-Department of Community and Family Medicine, Duke

Social Support Is Vital to Health and Well-being

"Loneliness is not simply actual isolation from others, but also the belief that one is alone. Our work at Duke three decades ago identi¬fied the perception of poor social support in older adults (loneliness being a key component) with a greater risk of early death compared to other factors, such as the actual number of people in the social network (spouses, friends, family). In addition, the perception that a person is lonely is a more powerful predictor than even the actual amount of social interaction. Research has demonstrated, at least from the 1970s, that poor social support is associated with poor health outcomes, especially early death. This is especially true for the elderly. The current studies highlight and focus on this very important fact."

We all experience loneliness at some point in our lives, but seniors can be particularly vulnerable. Aging is accompanied by a shrinking social network as friends relocate or pass on, and we lose partners or close family members. Ill health also can factor in—restricting our mobility and diminishing our confidence when it comes to seeking companionship.

Research has highlighted that loneliness can affect older adults' health just as much as more tangible health risk factors like obesity; in fact, one 2010 study suggests that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity does.

"Evidence indicates that loneliness can affect mental and physical well-being, and that chronic loneliness belongs among health risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise," says John Cacioppo, MD, PhD, Director of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and one of the nation's leading experts on the effects of loneliness. "The effects contribute to higher rates of morbidity and mortality in lonely older adults."

WHAT YOU CAN DO

to Stay Socially Engaged:
  • Attend your local senior center, which probably provides a range of social outings and events, as well as health and wellness information, and transportation options. Your church or synagogue also can be a source of social support (if you aren't religious, many churches o¬ffer secular programs).
  • Consider volunteering at your local library, hospital, or school. Older adults who volunteer report feeling healthier and happier. For local volunteer opportunities, log onto Senior Corps (www.seniorcorps.org), which also offers a Senior Companion program, and Foster Grandparent programs.
  • Take adult education classes. There are lots of community classes seniors can take in most cities that will keep their minds sharp and enable their enjoyment of life to continue for as long as possible.
  • Connect online if you are unable to leave your home—the American Association of Retired Persons (www.aarp.org) offers an online community for older adults

Profound Health Consequences.

Professor Cacioppo, co-author of a recent study on loneliness (Perspectives on Psychological Science, March 2015), says his research has found dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health between lonely and socially engaged older people. "Loneliness can have profound health consequences for older people," he confirms. "Disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and increased depression are all reported in people experiencing extreme loneliness. All of these factors can cause problems for the body's immune system, and generally lower overall feelings of wellbeing."

These conclusions are backed up by other recent research. A review published in the same journal analyzed 70 studies exploring how loneliness, social isolation and/or living alone impact longevity, and found that loneliness was linked to a 26 percent higher risk for earlier death.

"People don't commonly think of social factors when they think of health," says review co-author Timothy B. Smith, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Brigham Young University. "We think of things like exercise, blood pressure, and taking cholesterol medication, but it turns out that social isolation is actually more predictive of death than any of those three things."

Be Proactive About Socializing.

These data suggest that it's important to be proactive about socializing with others as you age. "Even older people living alone are not necessarily lonely if they remain socially engaged and enjoy the company of those around them," Professor Cacioppo points out. He emphasizes the importance of taking part in family traditions, keeping in touch with former work colleagues, and making time for family and friends.

Dealing with a chronic illness shouldn't prevent you from still trying to get out if you can—but if your mobility is limited, consider reaching out to others via online communities, or contact your local senior center, which may be able to provide transportation so you can attend social events.

 

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