(ABC4 Utah) Loneliness and social isolation in older adults are serious public health risks affecting a significant number of people in the United States and putting them at risk for dementia and other serious medical conditions.
All humans need social connection and interaction as part of their survival. But often as adults age, they begin to spend more time alone making them more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness.
Reasons a person may find themselves unexpectedly isolated
Older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors that lead to them being alone.
- Disability or lack of mobility
- Worsening vision or hearing problems
- Separation from friends or family
- Illness or death of a loved one
- Lack of access to transportation
You may be at even greater risk if:
- Struggle with money
- Can’t leave their home
- Are a caregiver for someone else
- Live alone
- Have experienced a major loss or life change
- Have language barriers
- Have limited social support
- Have trouble hearing
- Are not engaged in meaningful activities or feel a lack of purpose
- Live in a rural, unsafe, or hard-to-reach neighborhood
- Have psychological or cognitive challenges, or depression1
Social isolation is associated with about a 50 percent increased risk of dementia. Loneliness is associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were also associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke.
It’s not a surprise to find out that a person’s risk of premature death from all causes is significantly increased by social isolation, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Among heart failure patients, instances of loneliness increased the risk of death by nearly four times, along with a 68 percent increased risk of hospitalization, and a 57 percent increased risk of emergency department visits.
If you want to help support older people who may be experiencing social isolation, engaging in activities that are meaningful can boost mood and give people a sense of purpose. In addition to living longer, research demonstrates that productive people seem to improve cognitive function and are better able to maintain their well-being.
Tips for staying connected:
- Learn something new – sign up for a class in your community. Optum Community Centers offer options and are free to anyone 55 and older.
- Reignite your passions with something you love – begin an old hobby
- Explore volunteer opportunities with your local community that allow you to help others
- Make sure you stay connected with your friends and family in-person or through phone calls, email, video chats or social media
- Stay physically active and consider group exercise, such a walking club or working out with a friend.
- Find a faith-based or spiritual organization where you can engage with others in a meaningful way
- If you are able, adopt a pet. Animals can be a source of comfort and may also lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
How to prevent and reduce the impact of social isolation.
First – address how a doctor can help.
It is important to discuss feelings of loneliness or isolation with a health care professional as it can lead to serious physical and cognitive health problems. Talk about major life changes that have occurred or stress, for example, the unexpected loss of a loved one or divorce.
Second – Look for resources as options for isolation.
For example, Optum’s Community Centers provide people 55+ a welcoming place to meet others, be active, participate in social programs, learn about important health topics or just enjoy good conversation. There is no cost to visit or join activities. All activities follow CDC recommended COVID-19 safety guidelines
Being open and honest about feelings and health habits will help a doctor better understand your medical and emotional health and will allow a provider to make suggestions that may be helpful.
Aging Services have many programs designed to reduce isolation. For example, Optum is starting to volunteer with the Salt Lake County Aging Services Friendly Caller Program where volunteers are paired with a senior with weekly calls to chat, develop a relationship, and hopefully ease the strain of isolation.