For many young people, a weekend spent alone can sometimes feel like dying. But for their elders, loneliness can literally spell an early death. While this is hardly a surprise for anyone dealing with older people as they progressively face bereavement and isolation, a recent study by the University of California in San Francisco has finally crunched the numbers. Its results are alarming.
The researchers, led by Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, interviewed 1,604 seniors with an average age of seventy-one years. They were asked among other things to what extent they felt isolated, lonely, and in need of companionship.
Forty-three percent of the respondents stated that they felt lonely. Then, six years later, 22.8 percent of these persons were dead, compared with only 14.2 percent of those who had not felt lonely.
It appears that loneliness is associated with a greater risk of losing vital functions, including the ability to climb steps and to manage the basic routines of everyday life, such as cooking, shopping, laundry, basic hygiene etc. Other research cited in the study describes a greater risk for sleep loss, cardiovascular dysfunction and depression among lonely elders. These factors add up to a drastically curtailed life expectancy, preceded by a significant decline in the quality of that life.
According to the study,
(l)oneliness is an important contributor to human suffering, especially in elderly persons, among whom prevalence rates may be higher. Loneliness is the subjective feeling of isolation, not belonging, or lacking companionship. While persons who are lonely are more likely to experience depressive symptoms, feelings of loneliness are only weakly associated with enjoyment, energy, and motivation—emotions that are central to a diagnosis of depression.
In discussion solutions to this problem, the study states that
(o)n the basis of our findings, we hypothesize that health outcomes in older people may be improved by focusing on policies that promote social engagement and, more importantly, by helping elders develop and maintain satisfying interpersonal relationships. These findings suggest a need to look into interventions that explore strategies of mitigating loneliness, such as diverse living arrangements and telephone support.
Drastic changes are clearly needed in social welfare policies aimed at older citizens, but don’t expect the financially strapped and ethically challenged US healthcare industry to respond overnight. So this weekend, pick up the phone and ring up that aged parent or relative, or else consider stopping by your elderly neighbor’s place for a cup of tea and a chat. You won’t just be brightening a day. You might be saving a life.
You can read the full study, Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death, here.