Did you know that social isolation is bad for your health? Also did you know that loneliness and poor social connections can be as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day? It is worse for your health than obesity and lonely people are more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and dementia.
You might wonder how is this possible. Well in the past decade a number of studies and science breakthroughs have proven that the quality of social relationships is linked to mental health, disease and mortality.
Our modern way of life is contributing to the lack of quantity and quality of social relationships. You would think with today’s technology and how we are more connected than ever, this wouldn’t be the case, but it is.
More worryingly is that the evidence indicates social relationships in industrialized societies such as the UK are decreasing. This is because of the decrease of inter-generational living, increased single resident households, increased age-related disabilities and dual career families. The evidence suggests that people are becoming increasingly more socially isolated than ever before.
Today families can be spread far and wide, sometimes the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. More and more people are not getting married and having children and more people than ever are choosing to live alone.
So why is social isolation bad for your health? Studies in a number of fields show that the environment is an important factor in our general health. If elderly people could spend more time with people who exhibit healthy habits, this helps to reinforce healthy behaviors. With the elderly it is also about access to health-related information, better nutrition, physical activity, help with transportation to health care providers.
Loneliness is known to be a major risk factor for depression. Depression may increase mortality and illness through several mechanisms. Depression can increase platelet aggregation through diminished serotonin function and thereby increase risk for heart attack and stroke. Platelet aggregation in simple terms means ‘the clumping together of platelets in the blood’ (blood clot). Platelet aggregation is part of the sequence of events leading to the formation of a thrombus (blood clot). There may also be increased heart rate variability (unstable autonomic nervous system) and increased release of adrenaline, both leading to increased risk of cardiac arrhythmia. Whatever the mechanism, the effect of depression on mortality is big. One large study found that depression increased mortality risk by 24%.
Studies have found that social isolation has a direct effect on cardiovascular disease risk factors. Isolation and loneliness are associated with increased sympathetic nervous system activity, increased inflammation, and decreased sleep, which can all speed up brain and cardiovascular aging. They found dysregulated blood pressure and cortisol responses to acute stress in people with few close friends, regardless of whether the isolated individuals did or didn’t express feelings of loneliness. They also saw increased cholesterol in the socially isolated men, but not women. All of these physiologic changes are known to increase risk of heart attacks and stroke.
There is some evidence to suggest that loneliness can affect immune function which means increasing susceptibility to infection. Loneliness is also associated with disrupted sleep. Insomnia affects immune function, glucose regulation, cardiovascular risk, dementia risk, mood, and daytime function.
Strong evidence suggests that many elderly people feel isolated, and that loneliness is associated with poor health and higher rates of mortality. Some authors say the that increased risks to health from isolation and loneliness are actually “modest” in wider scheme of things. The environment of a toxic and unhealthy relationship maybe even more stressful and unhealthy than loneliness.
More research needs to be done, but there are also compelling hypotheses and some experimental data to explain the physiologic mechanisms by which social isolation drives disease. On a positive, they are starting to see evidence that interventions to reduce loneliness may provide health benefits.
Loneliness is a common human emotion and for most people the feeling passes, but for some it can persist and have a very negative impact on your well-being and quality of life. It can affect all members of society young and old.
Sadly, loneliness is becoming increasingly common. Some of the stats are shocking. 3.9 million older people in the UK live alone and 2 million are aged 75 or over. 1.2 million of those are chronically lonely. Half all people aged over 75 live on their own.
Age UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness presents new evidence about loneliness and what increases the chances of people experiencing it. Loneliness happens when people struggle to find relationships they desire. Often through the loss of a partner or job. Retirement can itself be a problem and cause loneliness. Worsening health and mobility are another issue stopping people getting out and engaging in relationships.
Addressing loneliness is a complex business because every person’s experience and causes will be unique to them. We all have had different experiences and situations to deal with, finding a solution to tackle all will be very difficult.
Solutions to Loneliness
Because of the complexity there needs to be a number of changes in society to really make a difference. Society as a whole needs more compassion. With regards to the elderly, there have been many successful initiatives across the world which have ran successfully and could be adapted here in the UK. One is by offering free rent and accommodation for university students in exchange for 30 hours a month of their time. These 30 hours was spent socialising with residents in their eighties and nineties and teaching them new skills like how to email, use social media and Skype. This could be rolled out to those elderly living on their own. Age UK have volunteers that offer a befriending service. Volunteers befriend an elderly person and visit them regularly. Similarly, this could be rolled out to university students as part payment for rent. Both young and old can benefit from this type of arrangement. Here is an extreme thought. How about making elderly care a bit like national service. If social isolation is bad for your health, then surely we should all be forced into helping those in need.
Home Share Schemes
There are also many elderly people living alone in large houses which could also benefit from this type of arrangement. Home share schemes are increasing in the UK thanks to the success or trails around the world. If you google ‘Home share schemes UK’ you will find a number of websites which offer this type of arrangement.
There needs to be more incentives for family’s to look after their own elderly parents/grandparents. This would help with isolation and loneliness issues. Perhaps the Government could drop inheritance tax for families that work together to find a care solution. These shouldn’t need to be a tax incentive to look after our old. There was a time when family worked together to find a solution. Grandparents would look after the children so their children could work, then the children would grow up and go to work with their parents then looking after their parents. But today family’s are split far and wide across the country. People are living longer and people are working longer. Sadly there are more families with complex issues where loosing contact for years is the norm. Money tends to talk, so I am sure with some financial incentives this could improve family relations and how they approach caring for elderly relatives.
There are benefits which can be applied for. Attendance Allowance is a benefit for people over State Pension age who need help with personal care or supervision because of illness or disability. Carer’s Allowance is the main welfare benefit to help carers. You may still be able to claim it, even if you don’t think of yourself as a carer.
For all benefits and entitlements for the elderly follow the link below:
Shockingly each year up to £3.5bn of Pension Credit and Housing Benefit goes unclaimed by older people. So it is worth checking to see if you or an elderly relative is missing out of entitled benefits.
There is technology out there that can help keep the elderly more connected. More and more of the elderly have mobile phones and or tablets. However some of the websites and social media platforms can be confusing. Using skype for instance is a great way to see family members that live far away. Facebook and Instagram are used widely by the young so if you want to follow the youngsters these are the sites to join. This is where the younger generation can help in terms of teaching and showing our elderly relatives and neighbors how to get the most out of these devices. Whether it means helping them set up a social profile or creating a skype account and showing them how to video someone. Anyway that makes these devices and social networks more accessible by the elderly and lonely can only be a good thing.
Much more research needs to be done. There is enough evidence to state that social isolation and loneliness among the elderly as a significant public health issue. At the very least there needs to be more effort into providing a safe and humane approach for tackling social isolation and loneliness for people of all ages.