Loneliness in seniors may be fatal. A 2012 study that tracked over 6,500 elderly men and women over a seven-year period in the United Kingdom reported that the lack of social contact leads to an early death, regardless of participants’ underlying health issues.4 One author of the study noted that though lonely seniors die of the usual causes, isolation is one of the main risk factors that worsen pre-existing conditions.
The U.K. study is not the first of its kind, and its results indicate nothing new. When over 1,600 adults over the age of 60 in the U.S. were asked how often they felt lonely or excluded, 43% said often or some of the time. The researchers then tracked those same adults over six years, during which they noted no significant changes in feelings of loneliness. However, the adults who previously reported feeling lonely experienced a significant decline in their health and ability to function. Nearly 25% of adults who reported feeling lonely also reported that they had trouble carrying out activities of daily living. Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) include bathing, dressing, grooming, eating and getting in and out of bed. Only 12.5% of adults who were not lonely reported such declines.5 An even earlier study from 1992 followed 2,000 heart patients. This study revealed that relative mortality rates more than tripled among adults who had neither a confidant nor partner, compared to those who had one, the other, or both.
But what is the connection between loneliness, isolation and premature death? Research suggests that isolation and loneliness are linked to high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and early death.
The director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and author of the 2012 U.K. study suggests that the connection may have something to do with poor lifestyle choices.6 Those who are lonely are more likely to smoke and eat poorly. As such, lonely people are prone to inactivity, which further exacerbates health problems. Conversely, those who partake in meaningful, productive activities with others are generally happier, have a sense of purpose and tend to live longer. Social activities appear to play a vital role in both mental and physical health and well-being.