Winter in the northern states can be isolating, increasing loneliness and depression.  The holiday season often highlights feelings of loneliness.  Today, 17% of Americans over 65 live alone, and an estimated 8.8% of seniors are chronically lonely.   The sad fact is that loneliness can cause health problems and affect quality of life.

Health Factors of Loneliness

According to an article in Forbes, persistent loneliness may be a bigger health risk than smoking, obesity, exercise or nutrition.   A few years ago, researchers at Brigham Young University found that social isolation increases your risk of death by 30%.  There are 3 main factors contributing to this outcome.

  1. Psychologically, loneliness and social isolation are often associated with depression, anxiety, dementia, substance abuse, and an increased risk of suicide.
  2. Practically, human beings have a better chance of surviving in social and family groups than in isolation. If you have an accident or a sudden health event, there may not be anyone around to help. You could be showing signs of decline or disease that no one is round to notice.  Self-maintenance and healthy hygiene habits are something lonely people are less likely to engage in without some sort of encouragement from others.  Lonely people tend to eat worse, get less exercise, and not sleep as well.
  3. Physically, loneliness itself appears to be something that negatively impacts the body, from hardening your arteries to depressing your immune system to deterioration of your brain. Loneliness can raise blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  This makes your heart muscle work harder and causes damage to blood vessels.  Obesity and low levels of immunity are additional risks of loneliness.

Signs of Loneliness

Many seniors do not recognize their loneliness or the health problems it can cause.  As a result, few will voice their need for additional support.  Look for these signs of loneliness:

  • Under or oversleepingLoneliness
  • Withdrawal from relationships
  • Combativeness or moodiness
  • Depression
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of interest in normal passions
  • Decreased attention to self-care

Combating Loneliness

  • Get connected to your local senior center
  • Schedule regular phone calls to loved ones
  • Visit malls and community centers to take walks
  • Sign up for a class
  • Find a pen pal & write regularly
  • Attend religious or interest-based groups
  • Mark social events to look forward to on the calendar
  • Volunteer if you are able
  • Schedule visits with friends

Loneliness, often linked to isolation, can be a threat to health and safety.  It’s important, especially in winter, to take steps to reduce your isolation or that of the folks you care about.