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Combatting the Health Risks of Loneliness

More and more of your patients, particularly older adults, are grappling with loneliness, and a growing body of research suggests that chronic loneliness carries serious health risks.

“Loneliness is one of the most pressing public health issues facing the country today,” said Kerstin Emerson, a clinical assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Georgia College of Public Health who investigates the impact of loneliness among older adults.

Nearly one in three older adults are lonely in the United States, Emerson said, adding that this type of sustained loneliness has been linked to:

  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Disability
  • Cognitive decline
  • Depression
  • Early entry into nursing homes, and
  • Increased doctor’s visit

“Recent studies have even suggested that loneliness is a risk factor for early death comparable to smoking or being an alcoholic,” said Emerson.

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The patients who are most susceptible

Loneliness doesn’t just affect people who live alone, according to Emerson’s research.

“People who are socially isolated might be more likely to be lonely, but married people can be lonely as well, as can people who come from very family-oriented or community-oriented cultures,” said Emerson. “Loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

Loneliness is particularly a concern for older adults, she said, because they are more likely to face increased health issues and loss of friends, family or income, all of which are risk factors for loneliness.

Spotting the symptoms of loneliness

Determining exactly who is feeling lonely can be a challenge.

“Unlike things like diabetes, we can’t just take a blood sample and determine loneliness. The only way we can measure loneliness is to ask. Usually we ask a series of questions that are part of scales to get at loneliness,” said Emerson. She added that a person can be lonely in a crowded room, or in a very large family.

“If your needs for social connection are not being met, you could still be lonely.”

Someone who spends a lot of time by themselves can be at risk for feeling lonely, especially if they used to be socially engaged, Emerson explained. Lonely people may also have more trouble sleeping, or may tend to get sick more frequently. Some major life changes can also trigger loneliness, like a geographic move, loss of a spouse, a major health change (especially if it restricts driving), job loss or retirement. Those changes may be particularly relevant to older adults.

How can someone combat feelings of loneliness?

The answer will depend on what’s causing the loneliness, Emerson said. One person may withdraw from social interactions because he feels awkward, while another may be very social but is unable to meet with friends because she can’t drive.

“At its heart, loneliness is a personalized issue, and every solution is an individualized solution,” said Emerson. “There are therapies that can help people who need to build social skills. There are services that will help you get from your home to church or your local senior center. Maybe a virtual chat room would meet your needs.”

How can clinicians help older patients dealing with loneliness?

Emerson said awareness is key when it comes to addressing loneliness in older patients; then it just takes a little extra effort to steer them in the right direction.

“Communities do wonderful things already to help people who are lonely. Connecting people with those community services can be an amazing help,” she advised.

A physician might recommend to their older patients and/or their family members:

  • Signing older adults up for classes on how to use Facebook or a chat room
  • Using a medical transport/senior transport service, or coordinating regular rides to church, the gym or community senior centers
  • Connecting a senior with a service like Meals on Wheels

Source:  University of Georgia.

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