By Sam Nordberg, PhD
Chief of Behavioral Health
Loneliness and social isolation are a growing problem that can present serious health risks, particularly to older adults. It is not a problem that should be taken lightly. In fact, according to a recent report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), loneliness or social isolation are major risk factors for premature death, comparable to other more well-known risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity.
The report, Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults, noted that isolated and lonely people tend to get sick more often and are sicker longer. In addition, social isolation or loneliness was associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. The studies in the report also found that social isolation, poor social support, and loneliness were strongly linked to depression and anxiety, as well as thoughts of suicide in those age 60 or older.
There is no doubt that social isolation and loneliness is a widespread problem. The findings showed that nearly a quarter of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. There are many reasons for this. The fact is that our lives change as we age in many ways: we may not be at work each day with colleagues any longer; friends and neighbors may have passed away; children and other family members often relocate. All of these factors can make staying connected more difficult.
Although social isolation may not always increase an individual’s risk for medical or mental health complications, it’s important to be aware of its potential effects. So, how can you identify when you or someone you know is at risk for experiencing loneliness or social isolation? Risk factors can include but are not limited to:
- Disability or lack of mobility, which may prevent someone who wants social contact from getting it.
- Worsening vision or hearing problems, which can make it harder to feel connected with others, even when in the same room.
- Geographic separation from friends or family
- Illness or death of a loved one
- Lack of access to transportation, which can make it harder to connect with others even when people want to.
If you have concerns about yourself or a loved one, the good news is that there are steps you can take to help combat the effects of isolation and loneliness. Building and maintaining satisfying connections with others can boost people’s mood and restore a sense of purpose. In addition to living longer, research demonstrates that active, productive people benefit from improved cognitive function and are better able to maintain their well-being. So, how can you build new connections? The tips and suggestions shown below are a great place to start:
- Learn something new – sign up for a class in your community (many are even offered remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic).
- Reignite your passions with something you love – restart an old hobby.
- Explore volunteer opportunities with your local community that allow you to help others.
- Make sure you stay connected with your friends and family in-person or through phone calls, email, video chats or social media.
- Stay physically active and consider group exercise, such as a walking club or working out with a friend.
- Find a faith-based or spiritual organization where you can engage with others in a meaningful way.
- If you are able, adopt a pet. Animals can be a great source of comfort and may also help lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
Employing some of the above tips can go a long way to combating loneliness and isolation, and supporting the social and emotional needs that are so important to our overall health.
About Samuel Nordberg, PhD -Chief of Behavioral Health
For Dr. Samuel Nordberg, it was the events of September 11th, 2001 that led him to ultimately decide to become a psychologist. “On that day I was at work in the World Trade Center,” he explains. “9/11 more or less changed my life. I decided to leave my job in the financial industry and pursue something that would give me more meaning and purpose in my life.”
Dr. Nordberg eventually decided to go back to school,...View profile View posts by this doctor