Seniors Need Meaningful Relationships to Avoid Loneliness and Early Death

lonelinessLoneliness affects people of all ages, but seniors are especially susceptible to feeling lonely. A new study reveals that it is more than merely a feeling of sadness, but can have real and traumatic effects, including early death. It is best for seniors to stay involved and maintain meaningful relationships to avoid feeling lonely and getting their lives short.

John Capioppo is a psychologist and the director for the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. On Sunday, he presented his research on the topic of loneliness and early death at an annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He described it as more than sadness. He said that being extremely lonely is unsafe and raises the risk of death by 14 percent.

Capioppo came to this conclusion when he surveyed 2,100 people over the age of 55 in a Health and Retirement Study. He found that seniors who felt lonely got less sleep, had higher blood pressure, had increase cortisol (the stress hormone) and increased depression. The loss of a spouse, family member or a close friend can elicit temporary feelings of loneliness, but when it becomes a chronic condition, it can interfere with the quality of life.

People have an innate need to socialize. Isolation leads to unhappiness. Having companionship and maintaining meaningful relationships with at least several people can make a difference. It is common for seniors to head down south and spend their retirement in Florida or other warmer states, but experts advice against this if it means leaving behind relationships that have been building up over a lifetime. Moving is fine if the senior remains social, however, and meets new people to fill the void.

There are three ways to decrease loneliness, according to Capioppo. Seniors can improve their quality of live by having someone close in their life that compliments who they are as a person, having frequent face-to-face contact and feeling like part of a group. Just being with people is not enough, however. Seniors need to feel a strong connection to receive the benefit. They can be just as lonely sitting in a crowd if they have not developed meaningful relationships with people within the group.

A sense of belonging is a huge part of being happy and reducing loneliness. As many as 45 percent of seniors are divorced, separated or widowed, leaving many of them to live alone. Even married seniors face feelings of loneliness, however. Remaining an active part of the family, community, faith-based organization or social group can decrease feelings of loneliness in seniors, especially those who live alone.

The results of this study are not surprising since studies have already shown an association between loneliness and disability, cognitive ability, cancer, stroke and heart disease. It is typically viewed as a situation where people are sad. It is more than a social or mental problem though. It is every bit as dangerous as smoking and twice as dangerous as being obese. This study sheds light on the fact that it is actually dangerous to be extremely lonely because it increases the risk of early death.

By Tracy Rose


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