As we age, we often find ourselves more isolated from friends and family. We likely aren’t driving as often or as far, it’s possible that our spouse or close friends have passed away, and as our energy diminishes, we simply aren’t out and about as often as we once were. Social isolation is a legitimate problem for older adults and can even be a driver towards exploitations and scams. Here are a few stats to help show how prevalent social isolation can be for all of us as we get older:
- 24% of community-dwelling adults age 65 or over were socially isolated, according to a 2020 National Health and Aging Trends Study. Among them, 4% were severely socially isolated. This study was conducted before the coronavirus pandemic.
- 43% of those aged 60 or older have reported feeling lonely.
- 35% of adults aged 45 or older have reported feeling lonely, according to the AARP Foundation.
If you’re feeling lonely, you absolutely are not the only one.
There Are a Few Reasons Why Older Adults May Feel More Socially Isolated
- Older adults are more likely to live alone.
- Hearing loss can make someone feel lonely.
- Older adults may have lost family or friends.
- Chronic illnesses may isolate older adults. These illnesses can affect mobility or the desire to go out and see others.
Older adults who are socially isolated are more likely to be male, unmarried, and have a lower income and lower education level. Those who identify as LGBTQ, are immigrants, or who are part of other marginalized groups also are more likely to be socially isolated.
Feeling lonely or socially isolated isn’t necessarily reflective of whether or not you are actually alone. For instance, you could be surrounded by a lot of people and still feel lonely.
The Specific Health Effects of Social Isolation
You know that social isolation is bad for you, but how is it specifically bad for your health? Consider this expansive list, with information reported by Tulane University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
- The risk for premature death due to social isolation is similar to the risk posed by obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking.
- You increase your risk of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
- There is a 29% increased risk for heart disease.
- Your chance of developing chronic conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure increase when you are socially isolated.
- Loneliness is linked to a 40% increased risk for dementia.
- Those who are socially isolated increase their risk for a stroke.
- Loneliness and social isolation can affect sleep quality.
- Loneliness and isolation also can affect outcomes from certain health conditions. For instance, death, hospitalization, and emergency department visits all were increased for heart failure patients who felt lonely.
Here’s How to Combat Loneliness and Social Isolation
Let’s say that you feel you’ve become too socially isolated. Some people realize that they are isolated but also feel nervous about returning to their old routines of going out more often. That anxiety may end up prolonging loneliness and social isolation.
No matter what the situation, what can you do to feel less isolated and avoid any negative health effects? Here are a few tips:
- Acknowledge that you feel lonely. By acknowledging that you feel lonely or isolated, you can take the next steps to cope with it.
- Spend some time outside. When you spend time outside, even if you’re alone, you open yourself to the world around you. What often follows is social contact. Even if every visit outside does not lead to a new friend immediately, you still get yourself out of the house, where it’s a lot easier to feel isolated. Outdoors time also will get you some vitamin D, which we all need. If you combine your outdoors time with a short walk, you also get a health-boosting burst of physical activity. If the weather isn’t nice enough to go outside, open your curtains and spend some time looking outside the window.
- Let your doctor know if you’re struggling with isolation. Your health provider checks your physical health, but they also can help you with your mental health. For instance, they can refer you to a mental health professional, who can help you cope better with your isolation.
- Stay in touch. With so many ways to stay in touch with others nowadays, there is always a way to reach out to others. Email, text, social media, video chat, and even just an old-fashioned phone call are all ways you can reach out to those who care about you. Make a point every week to speak with someone special to you, even if it’s a long-lost contact.
- Get involved. Pursue a hobby or volunteer for a cause that you support. This can be a great way to meet others. If it’s not possible to do this face-to-face, there are some hobbies and volunteering you can do virtually.
When You Need Additional Help for Loneliness or Social Isolation
While it’s a good idea to let a health professional know if you are feeling lonely, you should make a special effort to seek help if you or someone you care for has the following symptoms, which could indicate depression or other mental health problems:
- Extreme anger
- An inability to complete daily tasks of living
- Large emotional swings
- Substance abuse