When we think about overall health, we often think about it from a physical perspective- for example, what we eat and the level of exercise we get on a regular basis. We tend to turn a blind eye to equally important factors of wellness, such as social connection and having a sense of community. As we age, our family dynamics can change for a variety of reasons and many seniors suffer from social isolation and feeling lonely. In fact, according to the CDC, it is reported that nearly one-third of adults over the age of 45 and older have feelings of loneliness. In this article, we will be discovering how important our sense of community becomes as we age and how it affects us both mentally and physically.
Increased risk of cognitive impairment & Dementia
A prevalent side effect of loneliness is the cognitive decline and the onset of dementia. Studies have shown that loneliness can cause as much as a 50% increased risk of dementia in older adults- which is a rather shocking statistic. Talking to a loved one, being involved in a group of people who share similar interests, or being involved in the community sends positive endorphins to our brain and promotes overall happiness and connectedness which contributes to our health overall.
Increased risk of depression
Feelings of depression can often be linked to sudden lifestyle changes, such as losing a loved one, change in living environment, or the inability to care for yourself the way that you used to. With these often traumatic changes, we can begin to experience feelings of sadness, numbness, pain, and low self-worth. These thoughts and feelings weigh heavily on our minds and deteriorate our mental well-being, which as we know makes us more susceptible to mental illness and cognitive decline.
Increased risk of long-term illness
When we experience feelings of loneliness or depression, it is not uncommon to notice a change in the way that we take care of ourselves. This may manifest itself in ways such as not getting adequate sleep, not taking care of our physical hygiene or not eating well. These all contribute to our physical well-being, and can in-turn cause health problems like high-blood pressure, heart disease and an increased risk of stroke.
Increased risk of mortality
Perhaps the most negative aspect of loneliness, depression, and cognitive decline is its apparent increase in mortality risk. When seniors live alone or do not have regular interaction with a caregiver or loved one on a regular basis, they do not have someone to assist them if they need medical attention or injure themselves. Not only this, but some estimates say that loneliness is a greater risk factor for mortality than obesity and comparable to the risk of smoking.
Increased risk of stress
Feelings of isolation and loneliness can cause an increase in stress, which takes a physical toll on our bodies. Stress has a direct effect on our nervous system, which contributes to chronic pain, cardiovascular health, respiratory health and even our gastrointestinal system.
Recognizing the signs of loneliness in a loved one is an important first step in helping them. If you are noticing a decline in energy, unwillingness to participate in activities they once enjoyed, sleep disturbances, memory issues or neglecting personal hygiene or other routines- it may be time to intervene. If you or a loved one are feeling symptoms of loneliness and isolation, here are a few suggestions to help:
- Reach out to a friend or family member. Even a drop-by visit or a phone conversation can mean the world to someone who feels lonely.
- Get involved. Participate in game nights or join a club with people who have common interests.
- Get outside. Getting fresh air (and a good dose of vitamin D!) actually has proven health benefits to promote stress reduction and overall happiness.