“Human beings are social creatures. Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. Yet, as we age, many of us are alone more often, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness—and related health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease.” This is the central point made in research published by the US National Institute on Aging in April 2019.
Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.
The research highlights the fact that loneliness brought on by isolation may alter the way cells in the immune system manage the healing effect of inflammation. If the inflammation lasts too long, this increases the risk of chronic diseases.
Dr Steve Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, states that “Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases. The biology of loneliness can accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.” Dr Cole also added that “People who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses, which makes them more vulnerable to some infectious diseases.”
A Commission to look into the adverse effects of loneliness set up by the UK Government reported in December 2017 (updated in June 2021) that weak social connection is as harmful to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and has even been estimated to shorten a person’s life span by as much as 15 years.
Loneliness is not only induced by social isolation but is certainly induced by forced social isolation. Social isolation increases the risk of dementia by 50%. This report also confirms that isolation weakens the immune system and increases the incidence of stroke, heart disease, mental health disorders and premature mortality by 20% to 30%.
As is the case for pollution, loneliness, although not diagnosed, still provokes negative health effects. The mental health effects of loneliness may also include sleep problems, anxiety, depression, increased stress and low self-esteem. Research by the University of California, San Francisco, also found that lonely seniors were 59% more likely to find daily tasks such as climbing stairs or walking more difficult.
The 2020 viral outbreak has highlighted the crisis of loneliness across generations, especially for senior citizens. Hopefully political leaders have taken note of this and should now be better informed when considering restrictive measure based on health issues.
These findings are also corroborated by the US CDC in a 2020 report by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) called ‘Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions’. The report points out that older adults are at increased risk for loneliness and social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and hearing loss.
The NASEM report states that although it is hard to measure social isolation and loneliness precisely, there is strong evidence that many adults aged 50 and older are socially isolated or lonely in ways that put their health at risk. Recent studies found that loneliness was associated with suicide and that among heart failure patients it was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.
In an article published in Times of Malta in May 2021 titled ‘It’s like prison – mental health in care homes deteriorating rapidly’ journalist Claudia Calleja warned that elderly people are feeling “imprisoned” in care homes and are pleading to be allowed out to spend time with family amid warnings from operators that their mental health is “deteriorating rapidly”.
Health Authorities should consider all implications very thoroughly before mandating health measures that cause individuals of all ages and families, especially senior citizens, to be isolated in confined spaces as the “The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention.”
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This article was published in the Senior Times of the Times of Malta on the 18 February 2022