Loneliness in Seniors: The Impact of Social Isolation on our Brains
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In his hit “Only The Lonely (Know How I Feel),” legendary crooner Roy Orbison hits close to home regarding the heartache of being and feeling alone: “Only the lonely know the way I feel tonight…only the lonely know this feeling ain’t right.”

Yes, it’s true — feeling alone is no fun. But the fact remains that many American seniors spend most of their lives lonely and isolated from the outside world. Sure, everyone enjoys a little alone time. However, for too many seniors, remaining isolated does more than diminish one’s zest for life. It can increase the risk of disease — and may even precipitate an early death.

The Science Behind Excess Alone Time on Senior Brains

According to the Pew Research Center, over 27% of people over the age of 60 live alone. Living alone is a risk factor for, you guessed it, loneliness. Overwhelmingly, people say they want to age at home. Without a spouse or other family members to rely on for companionship, they are at risk of becoming increasingly isolated.

According to AARP survey results, 1 in 3 adults say they lack regular companionship, and 1 in 4 say they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time. This survey is part of the National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and The University of Michigan. As we have seen with the recent pandemic, unpredictable circumstances can contribute to social isolation. Here are some circumstances that may lead to seniors becoming socially isolated:

  • A decrease in mobility limits a senior’s ability to access social activities or to even go outside.
  • Many seniors stop driving further limiting their freedom to connect with others.
  • Families may not live nearby. For many seniors, family interaction is the foundation of support and comfort. When this is not available, loneliness can increase.
  • The fact is, as people age more friends die, leaving seniors struggling to replace lost friendships.

The evidence is mounting that loneliness and social isolation affect the way our brains function. “We know that social isolation and loneliness are as bad for our health as obesity and smoking,” says Alison Bryant, AARP senior vice president of research. “AARP’s research shows that older adults who are unpaid caregivers, are low-income or identify as LGBT are at an increased risk for chronic loneliness.”

Humans are social creatures and although there are differences in an individual’s tolerance for social engagement, human connection is vital to health and well-being.

A Clear Connection to Senior Health Issues

The mental and medical consequences of loneliness are well documented. Social isolation increases the risk factor for several diseases and can lead to:

  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease. “The American Cancer Society study is the largest to date on all races and genders, but previous research has provided glimpses into the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness. A 2016 study led by Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta, PhD, linked loneliness to a 30 % increase in the risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease (Heart, Vol. 102, No. 13).”
  • Decreased cognitive and executive function. Studies have found a 40% increased risk of dementia for lonely people.
  • A 26% increase in the risk of premature death from all causes.
  • A decrease in the quality of sleep.
  • Increased chronic inflammation and decreased inflammatory control (linked to the risk of cognitive impairment and dementia).
  • Decreased immune function leading to vulnerability to many types of disease.
  • Increased fearfulness of social situations (sometimes resulting in paranoia).
  • Increased severity of strokes (with shortened survival).
  • An overall decrease in the subjective sense of well-being.
  • Several studies have shown an increased incidence of depression and other mental health disorders related to loneliness. Isolated seniors were over 27% more likely to suffer from depression. Depression affects all aspects of a senior’s life from motivation, to sleep, and nutrition. This can become a vicious cycle where depression leads to more difficulty in making social connections, which leads to more depression.

The Loneliness and Disease Connection is Nothing New

Other studies link loneliness with inflammation and neurological changes. For instance, lonely people experience dementia more frequently and risk premature death. In a paper shared at the American Psychological Association meeting, Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstead suggested that “loneliness is a bigger health risk than obesity.”

Conquering Isolation

While loneliness is very common, treating it is often challenging. But seeing as how a recent University of Chicago study concludes that “loneliness can make you sick,” researchers are increasingly drawn to figuring out this “invisible epidemic."

Here are six ways to help lonely seniors cope:

  1. Get moving. The longer someone has felt lonely the more difficult it can be to do something as simple as smiling and saying hello. There are many health benefits of socialization for seniors, and finding connections with other people is essential to alleviating a sense of isolation.
  2. Reach out. Feeling disconnected from other people and telling ourselves we have nothing in common pretty much guarantees loneliness will continue. Taking a risk and reaching out “may lead you to a connection or commonality that will make you feel less alone.”Strong relationships can help build your health. For isolated seniors, this may mean learning to use technology, something that can be very challenging for some folks. The ability to use a smartphone or other social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can be invaluable in connecting with people. There are unique and creative programs like Goodnight Zoom where older adults read stories to young people virtually.
  3. Think outside your box. A major consequence of isolation is that we think too much about our personal plight. Switching our frame of reference to what others might be going through can help lighten our loneliness. Another suggestion is to have an open mind about meeting new people. Reserve judgment and give people a chance to get to know you and for you to get to know them. Not everyone has to be your best friend, but you may find someone that has a positive impact on your life.
  4. Hunt down a new hobby. Those of us who feel cut off from the outside world can easily fall prey to inertia. Get up and get out there and just do something. Whether it’s an exercise program or a pottery class, becoming engaged with a new pastime just might make you happier. Crafting for seniors can be one easy and engaging way to advance your cognitive skills and participate in a new activity. If you don’t have a laptop, iPad, or computer, consider getting one. There is no end to things to learn and ways to engage with the world, from virtual museum tours to learning a new language.
  5. Show up. People who spend extended periods of time on their own often shy away from social functions. Try accepting an invitation to meet for lunch or coffee. If not, even sitting in a public place and reading can be surprisingly stimulating. Even talking on the phone or arranging for a Zoom call can keep you connected. Suggest scheduling such calls and video meetings so that people’s busy schedules don’t interfere.
  6. Feed your brain. From crossword puzzles to jigsaw puzzles to enrolling in a course at a community college or even online, learning something new can assist in help with keeping your brain healthy.

How Home Care Can Help With Social Isolation

Home care can offer valuable companionship and support for isolated seniors. Some ways they can help:

  • Companionship. It is not unusual for caregivers to bond with their clients. A good caregiver can engage in conversation and even help a senior connect with others in their community.
  • Assisting with technology. One of the barriers to seniors in learning technology is not having anyone to teach them. Home caregivers can help seniors utilize technology by setting up telehealth visits, setting up a zoom call, or using a smartphone.
  • Motivation. Caregivers are encouraging. They urge their clients to try new things, exercise and meet new people.

The People Prescription

People need people. This is especially true as people age and begin to lose function, friends, and freedom. It takes a concerted effort to work against the tide of loneliness and social isolation, but it can be done. Choose two or more things a day to work on to improve your health and well-being.

If you or a loved one are feeling lonely and isolated, learn how social programs can help both seniors and caregivers stay connected to their communities, by reading Social Programs - An Answer for Both Seniors and Caregiver.


Resources

Older people are more likely to live alone in the U.S. than elsewhere in the world

Loneliness Is Lethal

The risks of social isolation

Goodnight Zoom

Why It's Worth Fighting Loneliness

You Aren't Alone In Feeling These Emotions

Loneliness can damage health, triggering inflammation and neurological changes

About the Author(s)

With over 20 years of experience writing for leading healthcare providers, Rob is passionate about bringing awareness to the issues surrounding our aging society. As a former caretaker for his parents and his aunt, Rob understands first-hand the experiences and challenges of caring for an aging loved. Long an advocate for caregiver self-care, his favorite activities include walking on the beach, hiking in the coastal hills of Southern California and listening to music.

Amanda Lambert is the owner and president of Lambert Care Management, LLC which provides care management for older and disabled adults. She is the co-author of, Aging with Care: Your Guide to Hiring and Managing Caregivers at Home (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018). She has worked for over 20 years in the senior-related industry including mental health, marketing and guardianship. She has a passion for topics related to health, wellness and resilience as we age.

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