As we age, it’s normal to experience a reduction in our physical and mental abilities, making it more difficult to get out of the house and socialize. Making matters worse, many older adults have lost many of their loved ones, and we all know how difficult it is to make friends, regardless of age.
According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, nearly one-fourth of adults 65 and older are considered socially isolated – that is, lacking meaningful social connections – and nearly one-third of seniors live alone.
While it’s easy to view loneliness as a superficial concern, this issue poses serious health consequences for elderly people, as it can drastically impact their mental and physical health.
In 2020, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) published major findings on the effects of loneliness on seniors, based on almost 40 years of research, including 148 studies that encompassing over 300,000 participants.
The analysis found that seniors with strong social connections had a 50% decreased risk of premature mortality. Conversely, a lack of social connection was associated with an increased risk of premature death from all causes, particularly among males.
A 2015 meta-analysis by the NAS found that isolation and loneliness can also lead to an increased risk of dementia in patients. Data from thousands of patients found that a lack of exercise, social connections, and group activity led to a 50 percent greater chance of developing dementia.
Among a group of 589 Swedish seniors, nearly a third of those with serious dementia symptoms also reported severe loneliness. This same study also found that the symptoms of dementia were significantly worse in those who were socially isolated, indicating that, even among those with progressed dementia, it still helps for them to socialize.
Additional findings published by the NAS associate loneliness and isolation with serious health conditions, including premature heart disease and heart failure. Lonely people are in general less likely to exercise, go out regularly, or take part in group activities.
In a study of 15,000 patients with chronic heart disease, people living alone were associated with greater health risks than married patients. Another study found that among patients with heart failure, those reporting high loneliness were at four times more risk than their more social counterparts.
Cross-sectional studies of older adults from all over the world have associated loneliness with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.
Of a group of 8,000 in the U.S., 18 percent reported heightened loneliness. Of this group, 53 percent reported severe depression.
Another review of studies from 2010 to 2017 found loneliness to have a significant influence on the increased risk of suicidal thoughts in seniors. A meta-analysis of 31 studies in the U.S. found elderly adults who reported a lack of social relationships were 57 percent more likely to have suicidal ideations.
While loneliness affects people of all ages, it is more dire in seniors due to a variety of personal and circumstantial factors, so people should reach out to their loved ones and make time to connect with them.
To learn more about seniors and mental health, be sure to check out our helpful guides: