Isolation And Illness

By Sharon Naylor

December 15, 2014 6 min read

It's supposed to be the golden years, not the lonely years. If you're finding yourself alone more often than you'd like, you're not alone. According to a 2010 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, 11 million (28 percent) of people 65 or older lived alone, having been widowed, divorced or never married. The AARP says that more and more older adults do not have children, either. Add to that the reality that those with children and grandchildren may live several states away, and many seniors are left with a home that is too quiet.

Whether from family distance, or from decreased mobility as you age, your world has gotten smaller, and that's not good for your health. Here are some health risks related to isolation:

1) A 2009 study from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project says that seniors who feel lonely and isolated report not having good physical and/or mental health.

2) Feeling lonely can increase risks of cognitive decline and dementia. Your brain needs the stimulation of interaction, and having friends and family to talk to and spend time with exercises the different areas of the brain, strengthening them. We are wired to be social creatures, and not being social may have actual neurological detriments.

3) According to a 2012 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, social isolation and feelings of loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality. For instance, if you live alone and interact with few people, there may be no one to help you seek medical attention, or pay attention to your symptoms when you are ill.

4) Social isolation is linked to chronic illnesses, such as arthritis and lung disease.

5) Isolation is a risk factor for depression. When depressed, you may forget to take your medicines, have little to no appetite, lose or gain weight, and you may feel despondent enough to harm yourself.

6) Isolation can make you vulnerable to elder abuse. If you are alone, the people who do enter your home to care for you may take advantage of your isolated status.

7) Loneliness can cause high blood pressure. According to a 2010 study in Psychology and Aging, there is a direct correlation between loneliness and higher systolic blood pressure.

8) Being isolated increases your risk of needing long-term care.

9) Being lonely increases negativity, which can further reduce your social circle when people avoid you.

10) Being lonely can encourage unhealthy behaviors, like eating badly and not exercising.

Even without a spouse, kids or family members who can visit often, it is within your power to combat loneliness and step out of isolation. The first step is acknowledging that you may have gotten too comfortable being alone. You make and receive phone calls, and while that interaction may be cheery, it's not enough to foster a healthier lifestyle. So in addition to calling loved ones and interacting on social media and Skype, consider the following smart steps to ending your isolation:

--Say hello to neighbors. If you see them outside, step outside to say a quick hello. It's quite easy to strike up a friendly relationship with the people who live around you.

--Ask neighbors whether there is a book club in the area, one that might be within walking distance. You might not know that the locals get together once a month at alternating houses to discuss books and enjoy snacks. Even if you can't go every month, you'll belong to a group and be more social.

--Call your local senior center and ask to be put on their mailing list. Seniors centers often host parties and social events, and they may have a free shuttle to take you there and back.

--Call your local animal shelter and ask whether they need volunteers. From holding puppies to manning the desk on adoption days, you'll interact with people on a daily basis, perhaps finding friends in your co-workers. Plus, you will be around blood pressure-lowering animals.

--Volunteer elsewhere. At your library, ask for help in navigating the Internet to find opportunities at VolunteerMatch, where new and ongoing volunteer positions are posted. You might volunteer to simply cheer on runners at a 5k or read to children at a hospital.

--Move to a high-quality seniors community. It's not a nursing home, but rather a neighborhood filled with seniors your age, with planned activities and close proximity to other seniors looking for social interaction.

--Check your library's events page. They will often hold author booksignings and lectures that you can attend for free, interacting with others and enriching your life.

--Take a class. Your town may have an adult education center with a long list of daytime and evening classes in crafts, language, art history, writing, seniors yoga and other courses. You might even qualify for a discount.

And of course, use your social media connections to plan events to bring your family and friends to you. You might plan a lunch or a trip to the movies for a matinee, being the leader in your own exit from loneliness.

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