A few prominent studies on the real health costs of emotional isolation and loneliness made the news recently, including one published in the Archives of Internal Medicine which found that loneliness in individuals over 60 years of age appears associated with increased risk of functional decline and death. Another found that people living alone who have heart disease risk factors are many times more likely to get sick and die than their counterparts with ties to community or family.
The researchers behind one of these studies at the University of California, San Francisco, has this to say: "Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons. We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline."
The “functional decline” affects many essential activities including stair climbing, upper body strength, and cognitive tasks. Social isolation has been known to lead to depression, forgetfulness and compromised immune system health.
An estimated 11 percent of American households, or roughly 31 million of us, live alone. Many of this number are elderly. A 2006 study in the American Sociological Review found that Americans on average had only two close friends to confide in, down from an average of three in 1985. The percentage of people having not even one such confidant rose from 10 percent to almost 25 percent.
Not surprisingly, this trend has coincided with an increase in depression and suicide among people age 60 and older.
In his book Spontaneous Happiness, Dr. Andrew Weil cautions against social isolation. After most of a lifetime spent living in isolated areas, traveling widely, and pursuing a solitary occupation (writing), Weil realized he needed closer connections to people. “… I’ve come to realize that my preference for living away from people is not good for me,” he said. In his late 60s he moved to a town for the first time in 50 years, and now enjoys the company of family, friends and neighbors much more frequently.
It’s easy to let social connections slip when we get older. Family members and friends move away; we retire from jobs that provided daily physical and mental stimulation; spouses divorce, or one of them dies; friends fall out of touch. It can take an effort of will to retain ties to friends and community. But sometimes, all it takes is a phone call to re-connect with people, and it can literally save your life.
Says Weil: “If you want to be in optimum emotional health, realize that social isolation stands between you and it. Reach out to others. Join groups – to drum, meditate, sing, sew, read, whatever. Find communities – to garden, do service work, travel, whatever. We humans are social animals. Spontaneous happiness is incompatible with social isolation. Period.”
Science Daily, Loneliness in Older Individuals Linked to Functional Decline and Death
Science Daily, Living Alone Associated With Higher Risk of Mortality, Cardiovascular Death
“Spontaneous Happiness,” Andrew Weil M.D.