Doctors and physiologists are calling for increased awareness of the health risks associated with loneliness, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. A 2010 AARP study found that loneliness among adults age 45 and over is on the rise due to increased divorce rates, social media, and the increased prevalence of single person households. 35% of respondents stated they experienced loneliness, compared with 20% surveyed a decade earlier. The problem is likely more severe for seniors. A 2016 study conducted by Maike Luhmann, a professor at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany, and Louise Hawkley, a senior research scientist at the University of Chicago found that loneliness is most severe for seniors age 80 and older due to hearing loss, immobility, and death of loved ones.
According to Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, chronic loneliness, not just momentary loneliness that everyone temporarily will experience, can become a serious health problem.
Researchers have found that social isolation carries a risk of early death equal to or greater than other major health problems such as obesity. Researchers also found that these with social connections have a 50% decreased chance of early death.
“This has been underappreciated in the past,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, “but cumulative data over hundreds of studies with millions of participants provides robust evidence of the importance of social connections for physical health and risk for premature mortality.”
So what can be done? Some experts believe we need a public health campaign to discuss the problem of loneliness. Currently, senior centers and assisted living facilities can provide opportunities for socialization and group activities. The Agency on Aging has a 24-hour hotline seniors can call if they are feeling depressed, lonely or suicidal (1-800-971-0016). One thing you can do if you worry you or a loved one may be suffering from chronic loneliness is to see your primary care physician and be screened for loneliness and depression. You can also check out AARP’s website, Connect2Affect which offers a way to assess your loneliness and tips on how to become more connected.