Friends are Healthy — Impact of Loneliness on Health & Cognition
As of the publication of this article, the COVID-19 pandemic fortunately appears to be waning in the United States. However, many people are still dealing with the after effects from months of limited social contact, venue closures and reduced physical activity. Because the pandemic disproportionately affected seniors, it has really brought to the forefront many challenges that older adults face. Social isolation and loneliness, which many people experienced during the pandemic but which occur more readily for seniors who live alone, can have serious physical and psychological health risks.
Research on Isolation
For older adults who were already struggling with isolation, the pandemic likely heightened their feelings of loneliness. Although some seniors attended classes or worship online, “saw” family on FaceTime or Zoom and chatted with friends on the phone, none of these truly compare with in-person connections.
In a University of Michigan poll from June 2020, 56 percent of seniors reported feelings of isolation - more than double the amount from a similar poll taken by the same organization in 2018. To put the gravity of this data into perspective, consider a Brigham Young University study which found that isolation can be more dangerous than obesity or smoking. Recent research into both pandemic and non-pandemic related isolation provides a pretty clear message - seniors need social connections as much as they need healthy food, exercise and quality medical care.
Human brain cells, or neurons, are a lot like people. The more active and connected they are, the healthier they are. Loneliness appears to play a significant role in the overall wellness and brain health of seniors. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s, older people who feel lonely have an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Not surprisingly, the brain cells of people who suffer from dementia have fewer connections with other brain cells.
Older adults living alone are at high risk for social isolation and may be at a higher risk for developing a host of health concerns, among them cognitive issues. In addition, isolation can result in the neglect of healthy habits such as eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise. Similarly, unhealthy habits, such as excess alcohol consumption and smoking, appear to increase as the result of isolation, even for seniors. Seniors who are isolated from a social network are also more likely to fall prey to scammers and are less likely to report abuse.
Social Ties & Friendships
Recent studies from the Mayo Clinic indicate that social connections may help prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. One theory behind these findings is that friendships involve mental stimulation and that keeps the neurons in the brain busy. For example, friends meet-up to chat about common interests and life events, they keep up on what’s going on in each other’s lives, and sometimes attend events or activities together. Senior living communities provide an engaged, social lifestyle which is beneficial for mental and emotional health and well-being.
Friendships and a vibrant social life is beneficial physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Harvard Health Publications says that friendships may:
- Relieve harmful levels of stress
- Protect coronary arteries
- Improve gut function
- Promote insulin regulation
- Strengthen the immune system
People who have friends tend to be happier, and also are apt to be more active. Conversely, those who are socially isolated may be at higher risk for cognitive problems.
Loneliness And Depression
Depression and anxiety are common mental health issues for seniors. Although it is not yet recognized as a major risk factor, a study from the journal Psychology and Aging implies that loneliness increases the risk of depression.
Sometimes, people who begin to feel depressed draw back from social contacts. This increased isolation can lead to additional feelings of loneliness, which in turn can worsen depression, creating a vicious circle. Finding ways to reach out to these folks and help them connect with others can help break this cycle.
Cognitive Decline Happens First
One of the first signs of dementia is cognitive decline. As people age, they may lose higher brain functions such as memory and problem-solving skills. A study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital indicates that people who feel lonely experience cognitive decline at a 20 percent faster rate than those who do not feel lonely.
Staying Healthy And Connected
Regular exercise and healthy eating habits contribute to good overall physical and mental health. Although there is no proven way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, staying connected socially may be part of the solution.
Simply sharing a meal with others is a great way to maintain or build connections. Mealtime is the most common way that people share social bonds. Joining a book club, or a group that meets to play cards or board games are great options too. Group exercise can help cultivate physical and mental health. Attending lectures or seminars on a topic of interest can help seniors remain mentally stimulated.
If you’re considering assisted living for yourself or a loved one, look for a community that promotes social interaction. Options such as exercise programs, group dining areas, and a variety of daily social activities can go a long way to maintaining health.