Loneliness: An Unexpected Threat to Longevity

Many of my clients worry about their aging parents, especially if they live faraway. While it’s relatively easy, even from a distance, to hire someone to take care of the grocery shopping, yard work or snow plowing, or even to provide home health care, there may be a bigger problem that’s tougher for adult children to help their parents cope with — loneliness.

Loneliness can have serious health consequences for older people, increasing the loss of physical function and even hastening death. Attempting to quantify the effects of loneliness — defined as a sense of not having meaningful contact with others, accompanied by painful distress — geriatricians at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), asked 1,640 adults age 60 and older how often they felt isolated or left out, or longed for companionship. The study began in 2002 and was repeated, with researchers surveying the same group, every two years through 2008.

Interestingly, as reported in “The High Price of Loneliness,” an article by Judith Graham published in the New York Times, the number of older adults who reported feeling lonely didn’t change significantly over that period; the percentage held relatively steady at 43 percent. Consistently, about 13 percent of the older adults reported that they were often lonely, while 30 percent said loneliness was sometimes an issue.

Importantly, what did change over the six-year study period was the health status of the elderly men and women who described themselves as isolated or unhappy. By 2008, 24.8 percent of seniors in this group reported declines in their ability to perform the basic activities of daily living — bathing, dressing, eating, toileting and getting up from a chair or into bed on their own. Among those adults who did not describe themselves as lonely, only 12.5 percent reported such declines in health and well-being.

The UCSF researchers also found that the lonely older adults were 45 percent more likely to die than the seniors who felt meaningfully connected with other people. This percentage held even after the study results were adjusted for contributing factors like depression, socioeconomic status or existing health conditions.

In trying to understand the connection between declining health and loneliness, Graham points out that other research indicates that loneliness is related to biological processes that may result in changes in the immune and inflammatory processes and/or the disruption of the stress-related hormones. It’s also been proven that loneliness can increase blood pressure and exacerbate depression.

In reporting their study results, the UCSF researchers were quick to stress that loneliness is not the same thing as being alone. In fact, 62.5 percent of the older adults surveyed who reported being lonely also identified themselves as married! Rather, the researchers stressed that loneliness results from a lack of meaningful connections.

That’s an important distinction for me because often clients will justify delaying a visit back home, stating something along the lines of, “My mother has plenty of friends and she belongs to a garden club, so she’s always busy” or “My mother and father are lucky to have each other.” However, this research illuminates the important point that loneliness can result even if the older people have significant or numerous personal relationships. Loneliness, say the researchers, is about “how people experience relationships, not the number of relationships they have.”

That is, although you may think that your aging parents are happily engaged in life because they have each other, or close friends, or community groups, it is possible that loneliness will develop simply because their connections to the people in their daily lives are not as deep or meaningful as they could be.

The researchers insist that their findings do not devalue “what’s known in the scientific literature as social supports.” In fact, they say that social supports from peer groups to church groups are critical to older adults’ health and well-being, as well as to their longevity. But the study results seem to underscore the fact that a weekly bridge game cannot replace the benefits of deep personal connections, like the kind between family members.

In closing, I was particularly struck by a quote Graham includes in “The High Price of Loneliness” from Barbara Dane, a then 85-year-old jazz and blues singer from Oakland, California. Offering a painfully honest and powerful observation on aging and loneliness, Dane said, “As you get older, you see the world writing you off. So you tend to become passive and think, ‘I don’t want to bother anybody.’ You lose contact with your own kind, your tribe. And before you know it, you’re feeling bad. It’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your eyes start to fasten on the sunset, and you start walking toward it.”

We need to think about that and make more of an effort to call and visit our aging parents, as well as our older relatives and friends. As they deal with the inevitable loss of old friends or struggle with health or financial issues, you have what it takes to help them feel less alone — and to lead not only happier, but more connected, healthier, lives.

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