It has been conventional wisdom for a long time that loneliness in elders leads to decline in health and, possibly, early death. In June, a widely-reported, six-year study of 1600 people age 60 and older from the University of California at San Francisco seems to confirm that. According to SFGate
”...people who reported being lonely were more likely to suffer a decline in health or die over a six-year period than those who were content with their social lives.”
I can't read the full study because it requires a subscription to the Archives of Internal Medicine, so I am relying on the media who appear to have done a reasonable job with the gist of the study.
According to Judith Graham, reporting in The New York Times, the researchers, attempting to quantify the feeling of loneliness, found that
”About 13 percent of older adults said they were often lonely, while 30 percent said loneliness was sometimes an issue,” writes Ms. Graham (Judith is an online acquaintance of mine.)
“What did change over the six-year period was the health status of elderly men and women who felt isolated and unhappy. By 2008, 24.8 percent of seniors in this group reported declines in their ability to perform the so-called activities of daily living — to bathe, dress, eat, toilet and get up from a chair or a bed on their own.
“Among those free of loneliness, only 12.5 percent reported such declines.
“Lonely older adults also were 45 percent more likely to die than seniors who felt meaningfully connected with others, even after results were adjusted for factors like depression, socioeconomic status and existing health conditions.”
Reading this, I was reminded of the famous Terman study which seems to contradict this latest research.
The Terman longevity project is the most extensive study of long life ever conducted. Beginning in 1920, it followed 1500 Californians through more than 80 years with the goal to assess what behavior, personality traits, experience, relationships and more contribute to long, healthy life.
Results were published last year in a fascinating book, The Longevity Project that debunked some long-held beliefs as myths. Among them: married people live longer, happy thoughts reduce stress and extend life, and worrying is bad for your health. All wrong according to the Terman study.
Regarding loneliness, the Terman researchers reported that in terms of longevity,
“Overall, sociability was a wash. It didn't help or harm one's expected life span. The finding is an excellent reminder that supposed health benefits are often not what they first appear to be.”
And although “social ties emerged as critically important, they can cut two ways”:
”...loneliness and the absence of friends can be stressful and unhealthy unless you are seeking solitude, calm and self-reflection.”
I have no doubt that the health of some lonely, isolated elders suffers and some may die earlier than they might have otherwise. Over the years, we have often discussed how this happens.
We lose the daily camaraderie of the workplace when we retire. Adult children may move far away as do old friends and neighbors sometimes. They, and spouses, also die.
And as we get older, we don't get out and about as easily or often as we once did and that isn't always related to reduced mobility. An old friend in his seventies has mentioned several times - half in jest but there is truth here too - that when he gets an invitation, he asks himself if he really wants to get dressed.
I know the feeling; I sometimes have the same thought. And in my dotage, I'm not good at spur-of-the-moment invitations. I need time to plan so I can husband my energy and a last-minute engagement, if I accept, can disturb that balance for a couple of days.
But many elders, even without these limitations, say they don't know how to make new friends. For sure, however, you won't meet any if you stay home. In most towns, there are interest groups that meet regularly, volunteer opportunities, library book discussions, political organizations and more. If you look, there are plenty of opportunities to find like-minded people.
I've written many times that I consider blogging – as a blogger or commenter - an almost perfect pastime for elders. It's an excellent mental exercise that helps keep brain cells active and our minds nimble but what's relevant today is that it also keeps us socially engaged.
Close friendships are not uncommon among people who meet on blogs. I'm guessing that half the people I consider close I've met online during the years I've produced this blog. I've been pleased to meet a good many in person too either because we live near one another or one of us travels to the other's town.
This week, I met a TGB readers here in Portland, Oregon. Our first contact had been an email argument over something I'd written. At a long lunch on Tuesday, we left that behind and found many things in common.
So I am wondering what your experience is with loneliness, how you have or are dealing with it, and what advice you have for people who are feeling lonely (which we all know is different animal from being alone by choice.).
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jackie Harrison: The Last Rose