Newer research has stressed the importance of social connection to help support overall health and well-being – chronic isolation and loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Older adults are at greater risk for social isolation and loneliness and despite appearances, seniors who are married, have grown children nearby and are middle class also experience loneliness and social deprivation that can significantly hinder health and recovery.
Even while living with others, individuals can feel isolated and lonely due to a lack of social contact and having few people to interact with regularly. Social isolation is not only harmful to brain health, prolonged isolation can lead to a lack of regular sleep and exercise, increased stress and inflammation, and a rise in symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Recent research from the University of Michigan has also found that among older adults who underwent non-elective surgery, loneliness was associated with a greater risk of death at 30 days. Using data from the Health and Retirement Study including 4,400 Medicare patients with an average age of 75, the odds of death increased by 76 percent for every point increase in the standardized self-reported loneliness score.
Most participants in the study did not have other mental health disorders or symptoms of depression. Most were married and lived near or with their children, and were of middle-class income, not living in poverty. The research highlights the importance of helping older patients navigate post-operative care and conduct more careful and closer follow-ups for seniors needing support.
For older adults who are at risk for social isolation, finding ways to become more involved in the community through volunteer opportunities can help provide greater social interaction, a sense of belonging, and purpose. Spending time outdoors, staying physically active, enjoying hobbies, and connecting with others either in person or by phone or video chat can also provide relief from isolation and loneliness.