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April 09, 2024

Effects and Risks of Social Isolation and Loneliness In Older Adults

Did you know that 1 out of every 4 adults (nearly one-fourth of adults) age 65 and older is considered to be socially isolated? That's according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) [1].


This can be due to various reasons including debilitating physical and mental health, which has been proven to become even worse with social isolation and loneliness.


As Aristotle puts it, "Humans are social animals." The ancient Greek philosopher emphasized the social nature of human beings. He argued that humans are naturally inclined to live in communities and engage in social relationships.


Baruch Spinoza, a Dutch philosopher of the 17th century, also acknowledged that people derive more convenience than harm from social connections. This is especially crucial for older adults who need these social connections to stay mentally and physically sharp [2].


What Causes Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Adults?

Social isolation and loneliness in older adults can stem from various factors. Here are some common causes:

  • Decreased Social Connections: Life transitions such as retirement, loss of a spouse or friends, or children moving away can lead to reduced social interactions, contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Limited Mobility: Chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease or physical limitations like obesity can restrict your ability to engage in activities and interact with others, leading to social isolation and loneliness.
  • Lack of Transportation: Difficulty accessing transportation options can make it challenging to participate in community events, visit friends or family, and engage in social activities. This social and physical inactivity can exacerbate feelings of isolation.
  • Loss of Independence: Aging-related changes, such as decreased mobility or reliance on caregivers, can lead to a loss of independence and self-esteem, contributing to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Technological Barriers: Limited familiarity or access to technology can hinder older adults from connecting with others through social media platforms, video calls, or online communities, further exacerbating social isolation.
  • Changing Social Networks: As older adults age, their social networks may shrink due to the loss of close friends or limited opportunities to make new connections, increasing the risk of loneliness.

Addressing loneliness and social isolation in older adults requires targeted interventions and support. It is important to foster a sense of belonging and connection to improve their quality of life.


How Do Social Isolation and Loneliness Affect Older Adults?


According to the National Institute on Aging [3], social isolation and loneliness among older people can result in the following:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Risk of premature death
  • Cognitive decline
  • Obesity
  • Weakened immune function
  • Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease

Social isolation and loneliness can have significant negative health consequences as we get older. Social isolation or loneliness can affect your overall well-being and quality of life in several ways, including:

  • Mental Health: Social isolation and loneliness are linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. It can make you feel sad, anxious, and disconnected from others.
  • Physical Health: Studies have shown that social isolation and loneliness can contribute to poorer physical health outcomes. It may increase the risk of developing chronic conditions, lower immune system functioning and lead to higher mortality rates.
  • Emotional Well-being: Feeling socially isolated or lonely can result in feelings of emptiness, frustration, and a lack of purpose. It can also impact your self-esteem and sense of belonging.
  • Cognitive Function: Social interaction and engagement are essential for maintaining cognitive abilities. A lack of social connections may increase your risk of cognitive decline and impair your memory and thinking skills.
  • Overall Quality of Life: Social isolation and loneliness can diminish your overall quality of life. It may reduce your enjoyment of activities, limit your social support network, and lead to a sense of isolation and disconnection from the world around you.

A meta-analytic review by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University, found that loneliness and a lack of social connectedness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having a drinking problem.


Holt-Lunstad also stated that loneliness and isolation can even be twice as bad for your mental and physical health as being obese.


So, it's important to recognize the effects of loneliness and take steps to increase social connectedness for a healthier and happier life [4]. 


How Do You Know You Run a Risk of Social Isolation and Loneliness?

Isolation and loneliness are widespread among older and younger adults. However, the only way the aging population can reduce social isolation is first to understand the risk factors and who is currently at risk. Some vulnerable older adults include:

  • Loss of spouse, family, or friends
  • Living alone
  • Limited mobility
  • A lack of social skills
  • Retirement
  • Geographic distance from family members
  • Financial constraints
  • Caregiving responsibilities for partners or parents
  • Cultural or language barriers
  • A lack of social support
  • Cognitive decline
  • Limited access to technology
  • Loss of independence, such as relying on others for daily tasks or moving into a care facility.

By understanding these challenges, you can work towards implementing strategies and support systems to mitigate the effects of social isolation and advance social connection.


How Can You Prevent Social Isolation and Loneliness as You Get Older?


Addressing social isolation and loneliness as you get older is crucial for your well-being, as it minimizes health risks, reduces the risk of death, and promotes healthy aging. Here are some strategies to help you stay connected and engaged:


  1. Maintain Social Connections: Make an effort to stay in touch with family members, friends, and neighbors. Reach out to them regularly through phone calls, video chats, or in-person visits. Having social contact can help combat loneliness for older adults and also promote high-quality social life.
  3. Join Community Groups: Engage in activities and join community groups that align with your interests. This could include clubs, hobby groups, volunteer organizations, or senior centers. These provide opportunities to meet new people and foster social connections.
  5. Attend Social Events: Participate in social events, such as community gatherings, religious or cultural activities, or local events. These events can provide opportunities to interact with others and expand your social circle.
  7. Embrace Technology: Learn to use technology devices, such as smartphones, tablets, or computers, to connect with others. Explore social media platforms, video calls, and online communities to stay connected with friends, family, and interest groups.
  9. Seek Support: If you're experiencing feelings of loneliness or isolation, reach out for support. Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or healthcare professional. They can provide guidance and resources to help you connect with support groups or counseling services.
  11. Volunteer: Engaging in volunteer work can provide a sense of purpose, connect you with like-minded individuals, and contribute to your community. Consider volunteering at local organizations, schools, hospitals, or charities.
  13. Stay Active: Participate in physical activities or exercise programs designed for older adults. This not only promotes physical well-being but also provides opportunities for social interaction and engagement.
  15. Explore Intergenerational Programs: Look for opportunities to connect with younger generations, such as mentoring programs, intergenerational housing, or educational initiatives. These interactions can foster meaningful relationships and combat feelings of isolation.
  17. Maintain Hobbies and Interests: Pursue activities and hobbies that bring you joy and fulfillment. Engaging in hobbies can help you meet like-minded individuals and provide a sense of purpose and connection.
  19. Seek Community Resources: Familiarize yourself with local resources and services designed to support older adults. These may include transportation programs, senior centers, meal delivery services, or social support groups.

By proactively implementing these strategies, you can reduce the risk of social isolation and loneliness as you age. Remember, reaching out, staying engaged, and nurturing social connections are vital for your overall well-being and quality of life.


Final Words

Understand that it is normal to feel lonely occasionally even with all your friends and families around you. However, when it becomes a part of your life not to have anyone around to support your social needs, it can result in harmful effects, particularly among older adults.


At Kendal At Home, we recognize the importance of proactive measures to prevent and address social isolation and loneliness, especially if you plan to age at home. Our mission is to help you age in place with dignity and fulfillment.


What sets us apart is our commitment to creating healthy aging plans backed up by professional care coordination and coverage. We stand by our members with a lifetime guarantee of care services, providing you and your loved ones with peace of mind and reassurance.


Together, we can create a future filled with meaningful connections and a fulfilling life in the comfort of your own home.

Healthy aging is hard on your own. Kendal at Home can help you age well and enjoy your retirement.

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