A new study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science is shedding new light on loneliness and isolation. The study was conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and found some alarming trends when it comes to loneliness and isolation. In short, researchers found that “Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality”. That means a life cut short by being lonely… and that is a shame.
Several lifestyle and environmental factors are risk factors for early mortality, including smoking, sedentary lifestyle, and air pollution. However, in the scientific literature, much less attention has been given to social factors dem- onstrated to have equivalent or greater influence on mortality risk (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).
Loneliness and Isolation Study
The study was a meta-analysis (a study of many studies) involving millions of data-points. Researchers concluded that there is substantial evidence that indicates people lacking social connections “are at risk for premature mortality”. The risks associated with social isolation and loneliness are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, like obesity.
The data in this meta-analysis should make researchers call into question the assumption that social isolation among older adults places them at greater risk compared with social isolation among younger adults. Using the aggregate data, we found the opposite to be the case. Middle-age adults were at greater risk of mortality when lonely or living alone than when older adults experienced those same circumstances. – Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al
In a surprising twist, there was a greater risk for those individuals 65 and under vs their older counterparts. I would have thought just the opposite, but the risk is there nonetheless. I think it further confirms the need for awareness and caring for others and the importance of connectivity to family and friends. Technology helps us stay connected, as do social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. In my mind, nothing can take the place of a personal visit to family or a phone call that reaches out and touches someone you care about.
Senior Housing and Loneliness
I'll share my personal story about how a senior housing community healed my grandmother. Yes, healed.
My grandmother had been living on her own for the last 20 years in a small town in Montana. She was doing ok, until suddenly she wasn't. Her decline happened rapidly – she wasn't eating well, her home wasn't clean and we suspected she was falling but wasn't telling anyone.
We knew something needed to change, and fast. After consulting with her physician (who could find nothing wrong with her to cause these sudden changes), we collectively decided it would be best to facilitate a move for her to be closer to family. Luckily for us, she agreed with the decision and was also open to the idea of moving to a retirement/residential care community close to my home.
When she moved, she entered the facility as a frail, underweight, depressed woman. While it took a few weeks, we were surprised at how easily she made friends, started to gain weight and was insisting on being in the dining room on time. She no longer had to worry about keeping up with housecleaning or preparing meals for one. She also became stronger and was using her walker on a regular basis.
Fast-forward to today, my grandmother is doing very well. She has a close-knit group of friends that she eats her main meals with every day. She has a job in the “store” at the community and everyone knows her. Her weight is back to normal, she gets daily exercise and staff keeps a close eye on any changes we need to be aware of.
Best of all, she's no longer lonely. She's an active 90-year old woman who is more concerned about the dress so-and-so is wearing and what's on the menu than trying to hold it together by herself in her own home.
If you'd like to learn more about senior housing and the myriad of options out there, check out this article about the types of senior housing, signs it might be time for senior housing and senior housing alternatives.
Do you have a story or advice to share about combatting loneliness? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below.