The Dangers of Loneliness and How to Combat It
The older we get, the greater our risk of becoming isolated. We may no longer go to a job. Health issues may isolate us. Our spouse and friends may have passed away. According the 2010 U.S. Census, 28 percent of people age 65 and older live alone, accounting for approximately 11 million older Americans. And a study conducted by geriatricians at the University of California, San Francisco showed that 43 percent of seniors report feeling lonely at least some of the time.
Loneliness can have a major negative impact on health. According to a study conducted at Brigham Young University, “the effect of [social isolation and loneliness] is comparable to obesity.” Lead study author Julianne Holt-Lunstad emphasizes that “we need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.” A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that a lack of social contact increased one’s risk of early death. Several studies have shown that people who are more social get sick less and have healthier minds. A study from the Rush University Memory and Aging Project concluded that a higher level of social engagement in old age is associated with better cognitive function.
So what can those at the highest risk of loneliness do to become more engaged? Here are some tips to help you get started.
Join a support or social group
There are thousands of groups across the country that get together for the purpose of providing support and camaraderie. Whether you’ve recently lost a spouse or loved one, have cancer, or simply like to have coffee with friends, there’s probably a group in your area. Check out Meetup to find a group of interest near you. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, head to your local senior center.
Volunteering for a cause you believe in not only introduces you to new people, it provides people with a sense of purpose. If you’re not sure how to start, visit volunteer.gov and look for opportunities in your area. Or find a local senior living community and offer your services, which could be as simple as spending time with another human being.
If physical limitations make it difficult for you to leave home to connect with other people, do the next best thing – spend time with them online! A study conducted by University of Exeter researchers concluded that adults aged 60 to 95 who received computer equipment and training “had heightened feelings of self-competence, engaged more in social activity, had a stronger sense of personal identity, and showed improved cognitive capacity.”
Get a pet
Meaningful connection doesn’t have to be with another human to be beneficial. A study published in Aging & Mental Health showed that older adults who were pet owners were 36 percent less likely than non-pet owners to describe feelings of loneliness. Walking a dog can also be a great way to get some exercise and meet new people.
Practice mindful meditation
In our last post, we discussed the benefits of mindfulness. While practicing mindfulness doesn’t necessarily increase the possibility for socializing with others (unless you join a mindfulness group), it can ease the negative health effects of loneliness. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University showed that eight weeks of the mindfulness meditation training decreased participants’ loneliness.
Make socializing a priority
Now that you know the importance of socializing, it needs to be something you actively pursue. Just like any health routine, it’s something you need to plan for and follow through on. Don’t wait until you hear from someone about going out – make the call yourself! Put “getting together with friends” at the top of your to-do list every day.