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How loneliness increases the risk of premature death

elderly man looking worried

Did you know loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? Many experts think that social isolation is bad for human health. They came to this conclusion after a number of studies showed that people with fewer social relationships die earlier on average than those with more social relationships.  Click here to read the full report and findings.

Professor Holt-Lunstad was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that “The effect is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously … we need to start taking our social relationships more seriously”

Some startling facts on over 65s:

  • 5 million people aged 65+ live alone
  • 7% or 200,000 of people 65 and over have not had a conversation with friends or family for a month
  • Over 2 million, or nearly half (49%), of all people aged 75 and over live alone
  • 1% or 360,000 older people of 65+ have not had a conversation with friends or family for over a week
  • 5% or 975,000 older people often or always feel lonely
  • 04% or 1.2 million older people are persistently/chronically-lonely
  • 04% or 1.2 million older people have been coping with loneliness year, after year, after year
  • 87% or 800,000 older people have no close friends
  • 9% of older people feel trapped in their own home
  • 6% of older people (nearly 600,000) leave their house once a week or less
  • 30% say they would like to go out more often
  • 41% of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life and 12% say they feel cut off from society

These stats were updated on 2014 by Age UK. Click here to download full research on Age UK Loneliness Evidence Review including references

The study indicated that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death. People with a high degree of loneliness are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s than people with a low degree of loneliness. People who took part in more health-maintaining and independence-maintaining behaviours were less likely to feel isolated and more likely to feel that their community was a good one to grow old in.

We have all known that lifestyle and environmental factors increase our risk of dying early.  We know we shouldn’t smoke, we know we need to keep active, we know we need to eat healthily.  But how many of us really pay attention to social factors?

Being lonely is all about isolation. Someone may feel lonely in a crowd but socially content while alone.  Also people can feel lonely even when they are not socially isolated.  Just because an elderly person lives in a large household or care home doesn’t mean they wont suffer from loneliness. Apparently research shows that these people are more likely to struggle with loneliness.

How to Spot Loneliness

Spotting loneliness is not always easy. Below are some circumstances which could  mean a person is lonely.

  • They are neglecting their general appearance
  • They are neglecting their personal hygiene
  • They are not eating properly
  • They recently lost a loved one
  • They are experiencing health issues which have caused them to change their routine such as going out and doing what they used to enjoy
  • Family or friends have moved away
  • Complaining of feeling worthless and feeling a burden on society


The Impact of Loneliness on the Elderly

Feeling lonely has been shown to:

  • Increase blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular diseases,
  • Raise cortisol which is the stress hormone which can weaken the immune system,
  • Weaken sleep quality which leads to negative effects on metabolic, neural and hormonal regulations
  • Heightens feelings of depression, anxiety, and increased vulnerability

Be lonely can become a vicious circle as lonely people tend to adopt bad behaviors.  Such as using alcohol, smoking, eating the wrong foods which leads to being overweight and not getting enough exercise.

Studies have proven that people who took part in more health-maintaining and independence-maintaining behaviors were less likely to feel isolated and lonely.

What can we do to help

If you have an elderly relative or neighbour that you believe is lonely there are things you can do.  Just by simply being there and letting them know you are there and care will be great comfort to them. Offer to help them in anyway they wish.  They might just need a chat and have someone to listen to them.  You could be an ear, or if they need help getting out and about, why not offer to take them somewhere.  Perhaps they had a favourite restaurant or pub they used to enjoy having a meal at.  Offer to take them their yourself.

Encourage them to get support or offer to find it yourself. Ask them outright if you could help them find social activities to join.  Age UK provides social activities such as lunch clubs, exercise classes and coffee mornings.  Contact your local Age UK to see what activities are available. Put your postcode into the form on this page and it will take you to your local Age UK.

Age UK also has a befriending service, which can include home visits and telephone calls for people who are feeling lonely or isolated. Those wanting to volunteer and be a part of this befriending scheme should click here.  I personally have just volunteered myself.  I am more than happily befriend a elderly person if it helps them feeling less lonely.

If you have a family member you are worried about, have a family meeting and try and work out a rota so every other day someone is in contact with this person.  If the elderly person has grand-kids and they are local, involve them and explain to them that they can help the issue. Kits are technology savvy and can help with finding social groups and connections.  The elderly love nothing more than seeing their off spring and learning about what they are up too. They also love to tell of stories when they are young. Explain that just half an hour of their time spend with an elderly relative or neighbour would be so beneficial to them.

Everyone needs to encourage and support them in getting help.  Also everyone needs to be patient.  The elderly can be known to get irritable and understanding this is important.  They dont mean to be but when you cant do the things you used to, its a natural reaction.  Just try to offer gentle assurance.



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