Isolation and loneliness carry health risks for older Americans

Guest column by Dr. Todd Wisser
Posted 12/27/21

We’re heading into the holiday season, which is often embraced as a time to get together with friends and family to celebrate traditional holidays. However, what can be a joyous time for some, may …

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Isolation and loneliness carry health risks for older Americans

Posted

We’re heading into the holiday season, which is often embraced as a time to get together with friends and family to celebrate traditional holidays. However, what can be a joyous time for some, may be difficult for older adults who are more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Particularly during the holiday season. In fact, a recent report showed that nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated.

Loneliness and social isolation are serious health risks, particularly to at-risk individuals, such as older adults. A substantial body of evidence demonstrates that social isolation presents a major risk for premature mortality, comparable to other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking or obesity. In addition, poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. Perhaps most concerning is the fact 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.

As a general demographic, seniors can be more at risk for social isolation and loneliness. There are many tell-tale signs that you or someone you know is at risk for experiencing loneliness or social isolation. Risk factors can include but are not limited to disability or lack of mobility, worsening vision or hearing problems, separation from friends or family, illness or death of a loved one and lack of access to transportation.

Luckily, there are steps we can take to help combat the loneliness epidemic. 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. 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.

Some tips for staying connected include:

• Learn something new – sign up for a class in your community

•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.

By employing some of these tips, we can do our part to help combat loneliness and support the social and emotional needs of the older adults we care about this holiday season.

Dr. Todd Wisser is an Internal Medicine Physician with New West Physicians, part of Optum.

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