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Loneliness: The Risk of Premature Death

Author: Disabled World : Contact: Disabled World

Published: 2015-03-18

Synopsis and Key Points:

Article looks at the health aspect of loneliness and social isolation, particularly among seniors.

Main Digest

Seniors are particularly vulnerable to both loneliness and social isolation and it may have a serious effect on their health. Yet there are ways to overcome loneliness, even if you live alone and it is hard for you to get out and about. Hundreds of thousands of seniors are lonely and cut off from society, especially people over the age of seventy-five.

Loneliness is defined as a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connectedness or communality with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental or emotional factors.

For example; in England fifty-one percent of all people over the age of seventy-five live by themselves. Five million seniors state their television is their main form of company. People may become socially isolated for a number of reasons such as:

Despite the cause of the person's loneliness, it is surprisingly easy to be left feeling alone and vulnerable, something which may lead to depression as well as a serious decline in the person's health and overall well-being. A person who is lonely most likely also finds it difficult to reach out to others. A stigma exists surrounding loneliness and seniors tend to avoid asking for help out of pride. Bear in mind that loneliness can and does affect people of any age.

Connecting with Others and Feeling Useful and Appreciated

The need to interact with others is a part of the human experience. What follows are some ways for people who are lonely to connect with other people and feel both useful and appreciated.

Contact Others by Phone: Having a talk with a relative or friend over the phone may be the next best thing to actually being with them.

Get Out for a While: Do not wait for people to come and visit you, go to visit them. One of the advantages of being older is that public transportation is a better value. Travel by bus, train, or plane and visit those you care about.

Involve Yourself in Local Community Activities: Local community activities vary with a person's location, although the chances are you will have access to activities such as book clubs, walking groups, bingo, bridge, or faith groups.

Smile: Even if it feels difficult to do so, smile. Reach for every chance to smile at others or start a conversation. For example; interact with the person next to you in a line, doctor's office, or with people in shops. If you are shy or unsure of what to say to other people, try asking them about themselves.

Create a Diary: Planning out the week ahead and placing things in your diary can help you to feel less lonely and look forward to each day. Entries and planning might include things such as going to a local coffee shop, planning a walk in the park, going to a library or sports event, or planning to go to a museum or movie theater.

Invite People to Your Home: If you are feeling alone it is tempting to think that no-one wants to visit with you. Yet often times family members, friends and neighbors will appreciate receiving an invitation to come over and spend some time with you. If you prefer that someone else host, you can ask people if it alright if you come to visit with them.

Help Other People: Use the experiences and knowledge you have to give something back to your own community. You will receive a lot back in return such as confidence, new skills and new friends. A large number of volunteer opportunities exist that relish the skills and qualities of Seniors, People with Disabilities and Veterans with disabilities. Your experiences, patience and calmness are greatly valued.

Learn to Use a Computer: If your family members and friends live too far away to visit, a great way to keep in touch - particularly with children and grandchildren, is by using a computer or tablet. You can share pictures and email messages with family members and friends. You can pursue free video chats using various services and make new online friends, or re-connect with old friends, through social media websites. A tablet computer can be very useful if you cannot get around very easily because you can sit with the tablet on your lap or close at hand and the screen is both bright and clear. A sponge-tip stylus pen or speech recognition might help if the touchscreen is hard on arthritic hands or fingers with poor circulation. Your local library or community center may hold training courses for people to learn basic computer skills, as well as being wonderful places to meet and spend time with others.

Loneliness and Increased Risk of Early Death

People who are socially isolated and feel lonely might be at increased risk of early death according to British researchers. A lack of social contact may be an even larger risk factor than loneliness. Why isolation is such an incredible predictor of death remains uncertain.

Andrew Steptoe, Director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College in London stated, "Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced life span." Research results also suggest that loneliness has similar associations with poor health, according to Mr. Steptoe.

In a number of ways, social isolation and loneliness are two sides of the same issue. Social isolation indicates a lack of contact with family members, friends and organizations. Loneliness is a subjective experience of lack of social contact and companionship. Investigators discovered that social isolation was a more consistent predictor of not surviving than loneliness and is related to increased risk of dying - even after age and background health were considered.

Dr. Bryan Bruno, Acting Chair of Psychiatry at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said the results of research are somewhat unexpected. "You would think that loneliness would compound the risk for mortality, as opposed to just isolation - it's a bit of a surprise," said Dr. Bruno. Mr. Steptoe; however, explained that knowing about how lonely participants felt did not add to researchers ability to predict future mortality. Mr. Steptoe is not saying that loneliness is unimportant, or that researchers should not strive to reduce loneliness in seniors.

Mr. Steptoe suggested the need to pursue social connections where seniors are concerned, because maintaining social contacts among seniors and reducing isolation may be especially important for their survival. Dr. Bruno agrees that isolation is a significant factor in both reduced quality of life and mortality. Dr. Bruno stated, 'It is a difficult, challenging problem.'

Dr. Bruno says that where seniors are concerned, he often times pursues a lot of education about the risk associated with being isolated and encourages seniors to spend as much time as possible with other people - whether they are family members, friends, community organizations or groups, or performing volunteer work.

To examine the risks of loneliness and social isolation on dying, Mr. Steptoe's team collected data on 6,500 women and men over the age of fifty-two who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging. People who had limited contact with family members, friends, or community were classified as, 'socially isolated.' The researchers used a questionnaire to assess loneliness, which was described in background information in the study as a person's, 'dissatisfaction with the frequency and closeness of their social contacts, or the discrepancy between the relationships they have and the ones they would like to have.

During almost eight years of follow-up, 918 people died and social isolation and loneliness both predicted an early death. Social isolation; on the other hand, increased the risk of dying despite the person's health and other factors. Loneliness increased the risk of dying only among people who experienced underlying physical or mental health issues, according to the researchers.

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