From time to time, every human experiences loneliness and a sense of isolation. From the child who doesn't receive an invitation to a birthday party to the teenager who spends an inordinate amount of time on Facebook to make social connections, isolation and loneliness are common. Yet they are particularly common-and harmful-among the elderly.

We are social animals and need each other. Without social interaction with others, we feel like we are withering and dying.

Research on Effects of Social Isolation

Researchers have found that actual mortality rates in older men and women rise among those who are socially isolated, even when all other health factors are similar. Social isolation is a measurable scientific fact. It is determined by a formula that uses the numbers of contacts with others and the size of a person's social network. The more pronounced the social isolation of an older person is, the more elevated are the chances of the person dying sooner, scientists Steptoe, Shankar, Demakakos and Wardle have found.

Researchers have found that actual mortality rates in older men and women rise among those who are socially isolated, even when all other health factors are similar.

Why Social Isolation Happens for Seniors

As their spouses and friends pass on, seniors encounter a shrinking social network. They usually live on limited budgets, which puts the ability to participate in many activities beyond their financial reach. They may not be able to drive, thus limiting opportunities for social interactions with others.

Social Interaction Decreases Stress

It has been fairly well known for some time that stress is the reason why an early death normally comes to those who live in social isolation. Having a firm support system reduces stress.

Consequences of Social Isolation

The research by Steptoe and colleagues revealed these ugly consequences of social isolation and the related increased risks of:

  • cardiovascular disease
  • infections
  • cognitive decline
  • higher blood pressure
  • stronger inflammatory reactions to stress

York and Campbell note that Dr. House (not the TV personality) has compared social isolation to smoking and obesity and found it was just as deleterious as these famously unhealthy traits.

Helping seniors "not feel lonely" is a fool's errand, researchers say, because loneliness is a self-perceived condition and cannot be measured. Some people are lonely if they don't have social engagements every weekend; others are happy in solitude and enjoy their own company most of all. It was the degree of social isolation seniors experienced, not their loneliness, that was the determining factor in bringing death more quickly.

Dr. House (not the TV personality) has compared social isolation to smoking and obesity and found it was just as deleterious as these famously unhealthy traits.

Friends and social contacts are literally lifesavers. All seniors should be encouraged to build and maintain a good social network. This buffers the senior against the lethal effects of stress. Social interaction may also produce a friend or acquaintance who notices and remarks, "You look flushed today. Do you need a ride to the doctor?" Such a friend may literally save the senior's life.

Up next:

Sources

Campbell, Erin York & Waite, Linda J. (2009). Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health Among Older Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, March 2009, 50(1): 31-48. Available online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2756979/#R32.

House James S. (2001). Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why? Psychosomatic Medicine, 63:273-74.

Steptoe, Andrew, Shankar, Aparna, Demakakos, Panayotes, & Wardle, Jane. (2009). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 110(15): 5797-5801. Doi: 10.1073/pnas.1219686110. Available online at https://www.pnas.org/content/110/15/5797

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