In an effort to ward off the loneliness that followed his wife’s death, a 94-year-old man in Minnesota decided to install a swimming pool in his backyard for the neighborhood children. His backyard is now a hub of activity in the summer, filled with laughter, splashing children, and their parents and grandparents. And he’s no longer alone.
While not everyone would be willing to go to such extreme lengths to make social connections, contact with other people should still be a top priority. Chronic loneliness does more than just make you bored; it can actually harm your health.
“The experience of being lonely appears to be bad for one’s health,” says Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an associate psychiatrist at the Center for Alzheimer Research and Treatment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Loneliness is associated with depression, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, declines in mobility and daily function, and increased risk of early death.
Social isolation may affect life span
Research from Brigham Young University, presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention in August, suggested that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone are greater risk factors than obesity for premature death. These findings were based on two different research analyses, the first looking at 148 studies with a total of 300,000 participants, the second at 70 studies involving more than 3.4 million participants.
Loneliness is fairly common: approximately 17% of American adults over age 60 report being lonely often or much of the time. And it’s more common in women than men, says Dr. Donovan.
Challenges to staying connected
Social ties often fray because of life events that occur as people age. Sometimes the death of a partner or loved one leads to social isolation, as in the case of the man in Minnesota. Or an illness or physical limitation might make it harder for you to get around. And even if you’re healthy, your social network may start to shrink when these things happen to friends. “In general, older adults are resilient and adapt to these stresses, but cumulatively and over time, these physical and cognitive changes may make social relationships difficult to maintain,” says Dr. Donovan.
If your social calendar isn’t as full as it used to be, there are things you can do to help bring people back into your life.
Make social connections a priority. You know you need to schedule time for exercise, but you should also schedule time for friends. It’s easy to get caught up in day-to-day responsibilities and lose touch with others. Don’t allow that to happen. Make it a point to call, email, or meet up with friends or family members on a regular basis.
Pay attention to your mental health. Some people become more socially isolated because they’re suffering from depression. “Treating depression is very important,” says Dr. Donovan. For many people experiencing late-life depression, talk therapy can be very effective, so you may not even need medication to treat it.
Consider getting a roommate. In 2016, some 32% of women over age 65 lived alone, according to the American Psychological Association. “As you might expect, living alone is a major risk factor for loneliness and many of the adverse outcomes of loneliness,” says Dr. Donovan. “It’s possible that we should be encouraging more shared housing for older people.”
Take up a new hobby. Common interests create bonds. If you enjoy reading, join a book club. Group exercise classes are also a great way to connect with others. A 2010 AARP survey of adults ages 45 and older showed that people who were lonely were, not surprisingly, less likely to take part in activities that can build social connections, such as going to church, participating in community organizations, or taking up hobbies. Getting active can help you meet new people and forge social ties.
Whatever strategy you choose, fostering social connections can make your life more enjoyable and help you maintain your health. Socializing should be as much a part of your everyday life as exercise and good nutrition.
This piece was first seen on ‘Harvard Health Publishing’, December 2017.