The Surprising Effects of Loneliness on Your Health
In recent years, a lot of research has uncovered some truths about the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness on the health and life-span among older adults. The first thing to point out is that social isolation and loneliness are not necessarily the same thing. According to NPR.org, loneliness is more of a subjective experience characterized by the feeling of lacking companionship or intimate connections with other people. Loneliness is mostly determined by your desired level of social interaction and what you actually experience. Social isolation, on the other hand, is more objectively observable, characterized by a more willful lack of contact between the individual and society at large. Whether you’re feeling lonely or socially isolated, both can take a major toll on both your mental and physical health.
Loneliness and your Physical Health
There are many negative effects loneliness can have on your physical health, the first being lack of self-care through poor diet and hygiene, and lack of exercise. Studies have shown that those adults who feel lonely or isolated choose more unhealthy food options and tend to eat less fruits and vegetables. Part of the reasoning behind this is said to be that meals made for oneself are often simple and thrown-together, whereas meals prepared for a group are more likely to be well-balanced and contain a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. Those who are lonely are also often less motivated, leading to poor hygiene and less frequent exercise.
A second negative effect is heightened susceptibility to heart disease. According to a Harvard study conducted in 2012, middle aged adults who live alone have a 24% higher chance of dying from heart disease than those who do not. This increased risk can be caused for a variety of reasons. Since those who live alone tend to lack social support, they are more susceptible to the effects of stress. This stress, when coupled with a poor diet and lack of exercise, increase the risk of heart disease.
According to research done at the Ohio State University, loneliness can even weaken the immune system. This can lead to increased inflammation, and inflammation is known to be the cause of many health conditions including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Loneliness and your Mental Health
It has now been scientifically proven that the lonelier you feel, the more likely you are to have depressive symptoms. According to research done at the University of Chicago, when you feel lonely, brain hormones associated with stress (such as cortisol) become active and can cause depression. Those who experience depression can often experience severe, unhealthy weight loss and a sense of helplessness, which then perpetuates the cycle of isolation.
For this reason, for those who experience mild or moderate forms of depression, social interaction can be more effective at reducing symptoms than prescription antidepressants.
Psychologist John Cacioppo from the University of Chicago tracks the effects of loneliness on people of all ages. Some of his findings include:
- Regardless of your age, living alone increases the risk of suicide.
- Feeling lonely can destroy your quality of sleep, making it less restorative both physically and mentally. Those who feel lonely are also more likely to wake up in the middle of the night.
According to PsychologyToday.com, the healing agents for loneliness are awareness, acceptance, and compassion.
Pay attention to how your body feels in certain situations. If you feel sad, do not be afraid to show it or let it out by screaming, crying, etc. The more aware of your feelings you are, the better able you will be to overcome them or work through them.
Similar to awareness, acceptance is all about acknowledging your loneliness and choosing to be aware of it. Instead of running from the feeling or distracting yourself from it, hold onto the feeling and try to understand where it comes from. From there, begin to build different ways of coping that does not involve ignoring it or criticizing yourself for feeling it.
Remember you are never alone in how you feel. Just as you would show compassion to someone suffering from the effects of depression, allow yourself to be shown that love too. Surround yourself with people that are supportive of you and who will be there if you need help. These can be friends or family you have known for years, or even an online support group that you share similar experiences with.
Meeting New People
AARP gives a list of things that can help you with meeting new people and overcoming the feelings of loneliness and social isolation:
- Stop thinking that everyone else your age already has all the friends they will need.
- Accept invitations if you have no other plans. Even if you think it will not be the night of your life, just getting out can help you meet new people.
- Look into continuing your education through courses offered at your local colleges. Many colleges will allow older adults to take classes for free and some have programs specifically designed for seniors.
- Senior centers are not just for BINGO anymore. Many have a variety of different classes, activities, and trips you can participate in.
- Even after retiring, apply for part-time jobs. Many older adults become Uber drivers or air BNB hosts. This not only gives you something to do in your free time, but allows daily interactions with new people.
- Explore your bucket list. Pursue things you never had the time to do before retirement and look for things you are passionate about.
- Set up social media accounts. Sites such as Facebook allow you to stay connected with old friends and family members who may live far away.
- Organize a potluck dinner for your neighborhood or living community. Chances are there are others looking for something to get them out of the house too.
- If you love animals, consider getting a pet as a companion. If you are unable to have a pet live in your home, volunteering at a local animal shelter can give you a similar experience.
- Join a gym or rec center to stay active and healthy. Gyms often offer classes that you can sign up for, a great way to see the same people every week and make new friends.
- Always reach out to people even if they do not respond to you the first time. Maybe they were just busy when you called.
- If you are religious, go to your local church or synagogue and introduce yourself.
- Volunteer throughout your community. Whether it is at a hospital, museum, or school, volunteering is a great way to give back and meet new people.