Friday, 28 February 2014
Loneliness and Premature Death of Elders
I was shocked last week when these two headlines popped into my inbox:
Loneliness in Seniors Increases Chance of Premature Death and Loneliness Twice as Unhealthy as Obesity for Older People, Study Finds
It has been well known for a long time that social isolation is a serious health risk for elders. The late geriatrician, Robert N. Butler, noted that depression resulting in suicide of people 65 and older is often caused by loneliness.
Now, both of the headlines above are referring to a new study from the University of Chicago that has quantified the results of loneliness in old people:
”The scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over and found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during the six-year study than the least lonely," reports The Guardian.
“Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14% greater risk of dying. The figure means that loneliness has around twice the impact on an early death as obesity. Poverty increased the risk of an early death by 19%.”
[Psychologist John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago discussed this research recently at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Chicago. I haven't been able to locate the study so it may not be published yet.]
The Guardian story referenced another study on loneliness in Great Britain from 2012:
”The findings point to a coming crisis as the population ages and people increasingly live alone or far from their families. A study of loneliness in older Britons in 2012 found that more than a fifth felt lonely all the time, and a quarter became more lonely over five years.
“Half of those who took part in the survey said their loneliness was worse at weekends, and three-quarters suffered more at night.”
Of course, no one needs experts to tell us that the solution – with appropriate consideration for people who enjoy a lot of time alone – is to stay connected with family, if they are nearby, and with friends. And to make new friends.
There are several impediments to connecting that occur to me. Although psychologists suggest that we keep in touch with colleagues who are still working, that doesn't usually happen for both good and not-so-good reasons.
Sometimes we move to new locations leaving old friends behind. And some old friends have the poor manners to die. Last year, three friends of mine going back four decades died. If I don't kick off first, that is not going to stop happening.
Most of us yearn for personal connections with others. When we are younger, we often make new friends through our children's activities and, certainly, work. In retirement, that becomes more difficult.
One morning earlier this week, I met a new acquaintance at a local coffee shop. We talked about the grassroots group where we had met and we wandered around other topics in the way people do who are getting to know one another. The subject of making new friends in old age came up.
My acquaintance and his wife moved to this area a few years ago and have not met many people. He was somewhat apologetic telling me that joining the Village group is, in addition to working on a project he believes in, a way to meet new people.
In no way should he apologize. One of the best ways to meet others (at any time in life) is to join groups with which we have an affinity. There's nothing wrong with doing good and finding a friend or two or more in the process; you know the two of you have at least one thing in common from the getgo.
There are two coffee shops in my area where, I have noticed, retired people in particular gather fairly early every day to have breakfast and hang out together.
I'm too eager for coffee first thing to wait to shower, dress and drive somewhere so that idea doesn't work well for me. But for many others, it does. A friend of mine in Maine has made a couple of new friends at the gym he goes to several days a week.
As my acquaintance and I continued talking, he suggested that how to meet new people after retiring would be a good topic for this blog and I'm taking his suggestion.
What has been your experience in making new friends as you have grown older? Are you lonely? Have you reached out to anyone you thought you'd like to know? Or has someone reached out to you? What is your best advice?
Tell us your friendship – or loneliness - stories today.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Small Disappointments