(BPT) - Loneliness is a public health epidemic.
It’s a condition that doesn’t show up on medical tests, yet it can be just as deadly as daily smoking. The growing crisis has an outsized impact on older Americans. According to a recent study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated.
Social isolation and loneliness take a toll on physical and mental health, leading to chronic disease and higher healthcare costs.[i] Older adults are at especially high risk of social isolation and loneliness due to changes in social connections that can naturally come with aging, as well as hearing, vision, and memory loss, disability, trouble getting around, and/or the loss of family and friends.
“A startling number of seniors are lonely and isolated, and it’s taking a real toll on their mental and physical health,” said Robin Caruso, Chief Togetherness Officer at Elevance Health. “We need to pay attention to this growing crisis so that we can help preserve health and well-being in old age.”
Health Impacts of Loneliness
Risk factors for loneliness include living alone, the death of friends and family, mobility issues, discrimination, and poverty — especially among seniors. And the health effects of loneliness can be quite serious.
Older adults grappling with loneliness are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and cognitive decline. They’re also more likely to be admitted to a nursing home.
Loneliness can also lead to cardiovascular problems, including heart disease and stroke. According to a two-decades-long study, social isolation is a better predictor of whether someone will develop high blood pressure in old age than well-known physical risk factors like diabetes. Social isolation also increases the risk of dementia by about 50%, which was comparable to the effects of physical inactivity, low education level, and depression.
“Loneliness is a vicious cycle,” said Caruso. “Many of its causes and effects overlap, which can compound the problem over time.”
Spotting the Signs of Loneliness
As we move into the holiday season, family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances have the opportunity to check in on the older adults in their lives and help offer solutions to social isolation.
Signs to spot loneliness in seniors include:
“Our bodies and minds are inextricably linked,” said Caruso. “Spotting signs of loneliness can help family and friends to rally around their loved ones and provide support for those who are suffering.”
Strategies to Combat Loneliness
Whether you are suffering from loneliness yourself or supporting a loved one, there are many resources and tools to help cope.
Elevance Health has a clinical initiative that addresses the social challenges that older adults face daily. Its goal is to improve physical, psychological, and social well-being by encouraging participants to re-engage in healthcare, connect with community-based organizations, and increase physical activity.
Called Member Connect, offered through Elevance Health-affiliated Medicare Advantage plans, the program engages an Elevance Health community health worker and an Elevance Health employee volunteer, or phone pal, that together build connections with individuals. By establishing these personal connections, the approach aims to empower people to make behavior changes that reduce isolation and loneliness.
Since its inception in 2017, the Member Connect program team has facilitated over 216,833 phone calls. Telephone surveys found that 87% of program participants had more meaningful connections with people since joining the program, and more importantly, 79% of participants agreed that they had an increase in activities that bring them joy and purpose.
“When dealing with loneliness and isolation ‘going it alone’ is not a viable solution,” said Caruso. “Sometimes it just takes a phone call from someone who cares to serve as a catalyst to make meaningful lifestyle changes.”
Some additional strategies that older adults can use to cope with loneliness include:
“By empowering older adults to acknowledge and find ways to treat loneliness and isolation, we can all be a part of the solution to the loneliness epidemic,” said Caruso.
[i] United States Department of Health and Human Services. (2020, April). Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Retrieved 1/24/2023 https://www.cdc.gov/aging/publications/features/lonely-older-adults.html.