What causes loneliness? We're social beings. Connection with others feeds our body and soul. If we feel marginalized or isolated we might be lonely or depressed. Moving, losing a loved one, or living with chronic illness can all trigger feelings of loneliness. Loneliness may be harder to combat when we lack friends or live alone but it can happen in relationship or in a room of superficial acquaintances. It's easy to see why a medical professional would mistake loneliness for depression because the conditions share symptoms and can occur together. However solving loneliness is an inside job requiring a shift in our perception while depression is a biological challenge that may require medication to overcome. As we grow older we are at higher risk for loneliness. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) tells us that one third of adults over the age of 45 report loneliness and one fourth of adults over 65 years of age experience social isolation. Do you?
Loneliness has been in modern cultures for some time however research on loneliness is fairly new. We know that chronic loneliness, a condition of feeling lonely that just won't go away, has serious consequences on our physical health. Much like stress, chronic loneliness triggers the body to release cortisol a hormone that can, over time, cloud thinking, cause inflammation, and predispose us to gain weight among other things. Loneliness is linked with heart disease, high blood pressure, and insomnia. Recent research even suggests there's a connection between chronic loneliness and dementia! That connection goes both ways. Chronic loneliness may be a factor in developing dementia and people with dementia often find themselves isolated and lonely. Those living in long term care situations when covid lockdowns are present experience the critical isolation of not seeing family, friends or other residents which can cause dementia to suddenly progress. Writing in Jamda, Joyce Simard MSW and Ladislav Volicer MD PHD conclude, "Preventing loneliness in institutionalized persons is at least as important as helping them with personal hygiene."
The World Health Organization cautions that social isolation can have the health consequence of smoking 15 cigarettes a day! In addition, statistics tell us that Adults in midlife are 25% more likely to die prematurely from chronic loneliness and older adults who are coping with the isolation of retirement or loss of friends and familiarity are 50% more likely to die prematurely! These chilling statistics suggest that doctors need to include loneliness in their diagnostics. Brigham Young University professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, writes, "With an increasing aging population, the effects of loneliness on public health are only anticipated to increase. The challenge we face now is figuring out what can be done about it." Dr. Carla Perissinotto, a geriatrician at UC San Francisco, tells the website Next Avenue, "We focus so much on traditional risk factors 'Do you smoke? Are you overweight?' But we do not ask about loneliness and isolation, which have huge health effects." She explains, "So, part of it is asking the right questions..."
While we wait for the medical community and facilities that house older Americans to catch up to research on the dangers of chronic loneliness there are things we can do for our friends and family to prevent or assuage lonely feelings. Be a caring friend. Make that call you keep thinking you'll make. Rally a circle of friends for someone lonely. Send letters and packages to your lonely family members to brighten the day. Tell friends that you love them. During Covid we're seeing how rampant loneliness is in our society. Take away work or volunteering, remove visits with friends, stop traveling, stop going out for entertainment and you'll soon know if you are lonely too. Take lonely feelings seriously. Reach out if you can or call SAMHSA's national helpline. In a call with the organization they cautioned there aren't specific services that address loneliness but the helpline understands that loneliness is a serious condition. They have counselors available to talk with people who're experiencing pandemic related distress. SAMHSA is free and open for calls all day and night every day. You may also have a crisis line or 411 line in your area that can link you to local services.
Chronic loneliness is an epidemic in America and it's health consequences can be dangerous. Loneliness isn't a medically treatable condition but it can often be cured with human kindness. Lets do the good work of caring for one another especially during this time of pandemic. Take care, dear reader and take care of those you love.
Update Nov 2020. Loneliness can aggravate dementia as this ABC news profile documents.