Along with age comes more free time to enjoy life, but on the downside, there are often less people around with whom to share life experiences. With retirement, the loss of friends and family, health issues and driving challenges, social circles can tend to shrink as we grow older.
Before you know it, you can be spending day after day alone. Without regular social contact and rewarding relationships, feelings of loneliness can set it, and that’s not good for overall well-being.
Besides being emotionally painful, chronic loneliness is bad for your health--even deadly. Feeling lonely increases risk of death by 26 percent, according to a study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. University of Chicago social neuroscientist John T. Cacioppo’s pioneering research on the effects of loneliness finds that social isolation can be as life-threatening as cigarette smoking and obesity!
The alarming and negative side-effects of being lonesome include:
• Bad for the heart – Loneliness can raise blood pressure and increase inflammation and damage to the heart’s tissue and blood vessels, increasing the risk of heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular disease.
• More prone to illness – Being lonely decreases one’s immunity and makes fighting off viruses and infections more difficult.
• Disrupted sleep – Anxiety and depression from loneliness can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, resulting in less restorative sleep both physically and psychologically.
• Increased stress – Lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, even when they are relaxing.
• Cognitive decline – The lack of social engagement and mental stimulation can contribute to mental decline and even dementia.
• Depression – The lonely often experience a lack of hope and loss of meaning of life, which can contribute to depression and anxiety.
• Suicide – Living alone increases the risk of suicide for young and old alike.
The good news is that loneliness does not have to be a permanent state of mind! Here are some ways to combat loneliness:
• Reach out – Let family and friends know that you’re feeling lonesome and ask for help. You can also talk to a doctor, other care provider or pastor about being lonely.
• Focus on the needs of others – Volunteer and get involved with a group that supports a cause that is important to you. You will have the opportunity to befriend others with similar interests and shift your focus outward.
• Keep connected – Attend community meetings and family gatherings and keep appointments. If you need a ride, don’t be afraid to ask.
• Make a lifestyle change – Investigate other lifestyle options like moving in with a family member or relocating to a senior living community that offers opportunities for meaningful social connection and an active lifestyle.
It turns out that friendship is as important to our health as eating right and exercising. Raising awareness of the serious health risks of chronic loneliness hopefully has a positive impact on the importance of establishing and nurturing real-life friendships!