Today’s health headlines are literally filled with warnings about the dangers of smoking and the threats posed by obesity. Virtually every major organ in the body can be negatively impacted by these two killers – in fact, smoking is known to cause nearly a half-million deaths in the U.S. annually, while obesity is responsible for somewhere around 300,000. However, there are far fewer headlines, and much less general knowledge, about the fact that loneliness and withdrawal can increase the risk of premature death by as much as 50%. Atherton home care professionals who have seen the effects of loneliness on the elderly, can vouch for the tremendous impact that being alone can have on people having little or no social interaction.
Studies link loneliness with premature death
Two massive analyses have been concluded after having canvassed literally millions of adults in two separate, but related composite studies. The first of these actually included 148 studies and consulted more than 300,000 individuals. Ultimately, meta-analysis revealed clearly that the risk of premature death was lower by half among adults who were at least somewhat socially connected, as opposed to those who were isolated from the company of others.
The second meta-analysis was performed using 3.4 million adults, in 70 distinct studies, and the data from this huge undertaking reinforced the fact that early death was much more likely among adults who were either lonely or living alone, or were socially isolated. One of the coordinators of the overall effort with these two analyses, Prof. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, asserts that the reason this is so concerning is the fact that the U.S. population is aging so quickly.
Prof. Holt-Lunstad, who is a professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, presented these findings at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, in tandem with colleagues whom she collaborated with during the huge analyses. To emphasize the magnitude of their findings, the team also presented statistics which showed that the risk of premature death associated with loneliness and social isolation was even greater than the statistical risk of premature death from obesity or from smoking.
Conclusions from the two loneliness research projects
According to Prof. Holt-Lunstad, “Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic’. The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.” Of course the first step toward any headway made regarding the general problem is to invest more resources into effectively managing the problem for individuals, especially those whom we come into direct contact with in our lives.
Prof. Holt-Lunstad recommends that schoolchildren be taught more about social skills, especially at a time when they are in serious decline, because of the tendency toward isolation brought about by mobile devices. Many young people these days actually prefer the relative anonymity and lower immediacy of communicating via online social media, rather than through face-to-face encounters. While chatting in this way can be even more direct than in real life, the social skills required for actual relationships take a back seat in such sessions.
Another suggestion from the team members involved in the meta-analyses is that family doctors include much more emphasis on social connectedness when screening patients. Where social skills and social connectedness are found to be at levels which might tend toward isolation, family members and caretakers can be alerted to the fact, and presumably measures would then be taken to expose the patient to greater social activity.
One last recommendation offered by Prof. Holt-Lunstad and her team was that elderly adults facing retirement should include social connectedness in their retirement preparations. While most people consider retirement preparations to be limited to financial concerns and living arrangements, it seems appropriate to also incorporate plans for staying socially active. It is very important to stay in touch with friends and family who can prevent the possibility of loneliness from becoming a dominant factor in the life of an older person.
Immediate steps available to combat loneliness
While the recommendations above are intended to be ways that society as a whole can improve its handling of loneliness and isolation, there are some steps immediately available which can have a very positive impact in reducing the risk of premature death. The first of these is the sheer power of positive thinking. Psychologists have known for years that positive thinking can literally turn around a bad situation and make it completely tolerable, if not exactly welcome. Even seniors in poor health should be encouraged to find something positive about their lives, so that dwelling on the negative aspects does not become their main focus.
Elderly persons considered to be at risk of health issues due to isolation or loneliness should consider the possibility of community living, which can be much more supportive and healthful. It might seem a bit forced at first, but human nature should eventually win out, and most people will warm up to peers in the same environment and situation. Humans thrive on relationships, and when we are completely deprived of them, we all become much more vulnerable creatures.