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Social Connections Combat Loneliness

Posted on January 03, 2018 by Stacy Prouty & Arthur Lerman
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Herald-Tribune. Stacy Prouty is an ITN SunCoast Advisory Council member. Arthur Lerman is ITN SunCoast’s executive director.

In his groundbreaking book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam writes that “we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, and neighbors.” Putnam warned that “our stock of social capital, the very fabric of our connectedness with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.”

As Americans, we place a high value on our independence but are nevertheless dependent on social connections for our health and vitality. Because increasingly families are geographically dispersed and use technology for entertainment, communication and virtual engagement, we are physically less connected than ever.

Older adults are particularly affected by changes in social patterns. We move away from friends and family to warmer climates after retirement, our roles change, we lose loved ones, living situations change, health challenges arise, and how society perceives us as we traverse the decades marginalizes us. One or a combination of these increases the risk of becoming socially isolated and/or feeling lonely.

By the time we reach our 80s, half of us will live alone, mostly because of divorce or widowhood.

While there may be debate regarding the causes of our disconnectedness, the outcome is clear. Whether a person feels lonely or is isolated because of access to transportation or the lack of a social network, the negative effects on physical, mental, and emotional health are profound.

According to research by the AARP Foundation, nearly half of older adults in the U.S. experience loneliness to some degree. That means more than 8 million adults over 50 are affected by isolation. Social relationships have as much impact on physical health as blood pressure, smoking, physical activity, and obesity. Primary risk factors include: living alone, mobility or sensory impairments, transportation challenges, physical or mental-health changes, major life events, and economic instability.

  • A 2012 University of California–San Francisco study found older adults who report loneliness have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent higher risk of death than those who do not report feeling lonely.
  • Researchers from the UCLA School of Medicine found recently that social isolation turned up activity of genes responsible for inflammation and turned down activity of genes that produce infection fighting antibodies.
Quality of life deteriorates as a person’s world becomes smaller and society pays the price in medical costs associated with consequent physical, mental, and emotional problems. Fortunately, the issue is in the spotlight and communities, foundations, and global organizations are pursuing innovative initiatives to address it.

Loneliness does not have to be a normal part of the aging process.

With greater awareness, we can take steps to maintain ties to family and friends, expand social circles and become more involved in community. Consider reaching out to a neighbor if you are feeling isolated or suspect a neighbor might be. Share a meal with others whenever possible; join a church group or the Friendship Center, or sit at the counter at a local diner. Try a new method of transportation if you don’t drive or seek out an adaptive aid, such as a walker or hearing aid, if you are having trouble getting around or communicating.

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