Judy Eisner is almost blind and lives alone. She can't just pop out her door and easily navigate the streets of New York City by herself. But she gets by in other ways. Eisner regularly participates in art classes through a conference call set up by a local nonprofit group. Called DOROT — Hebrew for "generations" — it helps relieve social isolation among the elderly.
Research shows that being separated from people, whether because of decreased mobility, retirement, or when friends move away or die, can lead to loneliness, depression, and poor health. But getting involved can help fix that.
"The art class is an enjoyable and thoughtful program, and I like hearing other people on the phone," Eisner told HealthCentral in a telephone interview. She says she has been visited by young DOROT volunteers who help her tackle some computer problems. Afterward, they spend time socializing.
An epidemic of loneliness
An AARP study published in 2010 found that nearly 43 million adults over age 45 are chronically lonely.
An October 2016 Harris Poll of 2,000 U.S. adults reported that nearly three-quarters of people felt a sense of loneliness, with nearly a third (31 percent) experiencing loneliness at least once a week.
Additionally, the American Psychological Association cites U.S. census data that reveals:
- More than one-fourth of us live alone;
- More than half of us are unmarried;
- Since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined.
Friends bring benefits
If more people were proactive like Eisner about social connections, the world might be healthier.
"We need to take seriously the magnitude of how relationships affect our health," says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. She co-authored a study published in 2017 in American Psychologist that investigated how social relationships influence public health, regardless of age group. It found that social isolation, loneliness, and problems with relationships are well-established risk factors for poor health, including premature death.
Social isolation is not good for the brain; it can contribute to poorer cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, depression, and more. A study published in 2010 found that loneliness is also a risk factor for elevated blood pressure over time.
To counter the negative effects of loneliness, Holt-Lunstad recommends that people take time to be as socially active as they are physically active. "Carefully consider the quantity and quality of your relationships,” she says. "It's not about just having someone to talk to. Just like we plan for retirement financially, we should plan for it socially," she says.
In addition, she says that if you’re thinking about relocating, “consider how close you’ll be to an existing social network and to extended family members — and about the kind of support you need as you age.”
A nation of isolation
There are plenty of good reasons to be more social, and they support both mind and body health. Louise Hawkley, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at NORC, the non-partisan and objective research organization at the University of Chicago, has done extensive work with the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP). People who socialize more often and report lower levels of family strain, she says, are less likely to be lonely. That's according to a study she co-authored, published in March 2017.
What seems obvious may not always be, she cautions. "When talking about isolation, don't forget that people can feel it when they're not actually isolated," Hawkley said in a telephone interview with HealthCentral.
"People who have no excuse for being lonely may be incredibly lonely," she says. "Social media can also contribute to loneliness if it ends up replacing or compensating for the ability to have good face-to-face interactions."
To stave off loneliness, have a plan, Hawkley says. "It's also important, earlier in life, to figure out the importance of relationships and make sure you tend to them. You need to anticipate what's going to happen — that there will be goodbyes. The data seem to suggest being more socially engaged, even in the absence of close relationships, has protective features."
Being "peripheralized," or having a sense of not belonging to the larger community, can also encourage loneliness. "It can be more common among minorities and in LGBT circles, for example," she says.
Find something to do to conquer loneliness
After retiring from the practice of law and moving to Southern California two years ago, Yvette Carmon Davis, 66, found herself living alone. She decided to get a part-time job and attend church as she had previously. "I like church," she says. She also writes books.
She continues to reach out to keep isolation at bay. "I know how to go out and find something to do," she says. "You can grow weary of the same daytime television shows."
Davis says her job "re-retired her" recently, but she's not feeling isolated. "I believe that we should all reach out to someone socially isolated on a regular basis," she says. "It's not that difficult. And encourage the isolated to touch base with others."