The Social Connection Cure for Older Adults
We know ensuring that older adults are engaged with physical and emotional health care can make a positive impact on their overall functioning and health. It turns out that social connection can be just as vital to improving health outcomes and extending an older adult’s life expectancy. This is especially critical because older adults are at higher risk of social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is the condition of total or near-total absence of contact between an individual and society and loneliness is the subjective experience when a person has an unpleasant feeling of being empty, alone, disconnected or unwanted.
Former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called social isolation and loneliness an epidemic in the United States and likens the negative impact on lifespan and health status to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation and loneliness are more powerful than the impact of obesity or substance use and increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, dementia, falls and hospitalizations, anxiety, depression, sleep difficulty, suicidality, self-injury and other problems.
The body physically reacts to loneliness in the same way it does to trauma or chronic stress; inflammation builds in the cells, which, when prolonged, becomes a major detriment to overall health and can cause premature death. It creates a feedback loop between the body and the brain, sending messages that makes the person irritable, suspicious, prone to negative emotions and fearful of meeting new people and making new friends.
The good news is that if social connection is improved, social isolation and loneliness are thwarted and health outcomes can be improved. Research shows that while physical and mental health issues can put a person at risk for loneliness and isolation, they are independent of health status, meaning that whether or not a person is healthy, those who are more socially connected live longer. This gives reason to enhance connectedness to others.
Health care initiatives like the “Togetherness” initiative aim to combat the epidemic of loneliness, especially among older adults, through weekly phone calls, home visits and community programs. Warmlines, visiting and volunteer services have shown to be effective with older adults, as has engagement with community and social groups. Cohousing is on the rise to intentionally bring older and younger adults together in shared communities of single-family homes or larger apartment buildings where they share dining, laundry and recreational spaces. Robotic and other pets allow older adults to feel companionship and combat loneliness.
These are common and innovative methods provide connectedness for older adults that can eradicate social isolation and loneliness and cure avoidable illnesses or premature death. Older adults can live longer, healthier and more connected lives.
AARP. (2019). Is There a Medical Cure for Loneliness? https://www.aarp.org/home-family/friends-family/info-2019/medical-cure-for-loneliness.html
Cole, S., Capitanio, J., Chun, K., Arevalo, J., Ma, J., & Cacioppo, J. (2015). Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation. PNAS. Vol. 112, No. 49.
Psychology Today. (2018). What You Need to Know About the Loneliness Epidemic. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/modern-mentality/201807/what-you-need-know-about-the-loneliness-epidemic
Varney, J. (2013). Social Isolation from a public health perspective.