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Loneliness a public health threat in older adults

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jan 18, 2019 - 9:05:04 PM

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For Dorothy Washington, her “until death due you part” lasted 22 years.  When she got divorced, she thought about remarrying but the next ‘Mr. Right’ never seemed to come around.  Now, decades later, she lives alone and most days is lonely.  At nearly 80, she’s one of the growing number of seniors facing the public health threat of loneliness. 

Studies show loneliness can take a physical toll, that it is even worse for longevity than being obese, physically inactive, opioid addiction or any cancer.  It is also as closely linked to early mortality as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or consuming more than six alcoholic drinks a day. 

Census data and other research show close to one in 11 Americans age 50 and older is without a spouse, partner, companion or living child. That translates to about eight million people in the U.S. without close family to keep them company.  This population is projected to grow. An AARP Foundation survey released in September 2018 titled, “Loneliness and Social Connections: A National Survey of Adults 45 and Older,” found that one  in three U.S. adults age 45 and older are lonely. 

“I didn’t expect to be by myself for so long,” Ms. Washington told The Final Call.  “My children are grown and have lives.  They come by and visit but most days I’m by myself.  Most days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months.  I’m not very social either.  I don’t have a lot of friends.  My children try to get me to go out and do things but unless they come and take me I tend to just stay home.”

“I am lonely though.  I wish I had more friends and I’m starting to get a little depressed too.  I had a different life in mind for myself when I was younger.  I was supposed to be married forever and ever.  My ex- husband has remarried and moved on.  I’m still here.”

A 2017 study by Harvard University, Stanford University and AARP found that socially isolated older adults are associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually. Their social isolation may be the result of retirement and the loss of family and/or friends.  Sometimes their declining health leads to social isolation first which then contributes to poorer health outcomes.

The study found that isolated older adults are at an increased risk of depression, cognitive decline and dementia. Social relationships influence their blood pressure and immune functioning, as well as whether people take their medications.

While loneliness and isolation can be detrimental for your health regardless of your age, when it happens later in life, it can be more challenging to deal with. Retirement diminishes friends formed through work. Health impairments like hearing, vision loss and worsening mobility decrease seniors’ ability to get out the house and engage in group activities.

“Social relationships—both quantity and quality—affect mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk,” explained study researchers. “Studies show that social relationships have short- and long-term effects on health, for better and for worse, and that these effects emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster cumulative advantage or disadvantage in health,” noted the study.

“The human costs of social isolation among older adults are high: socially isolated older adults tend to have poorer health and higher mortality risks. This study—the first to look at the relationship between social isolation and Medicare spending—reveals that a lack of social contact is also associated with increased Medicare spending,” the study continued.

The AARP survey also revealed nearly half of midlife and older adults with annual incomes of less than $25,000 report being lonely and that a full 10 million people over the age of 50 live in poverty in the United States. Over 3,000 people were surveyed.

James Washington is the oldest son of Ms. Washington.  “I’m very concerned about my mother.  I’ve tried to get her to move with me and my family but she doesn’t want to leave her home.  I see her dwindling and see her depression but can’t get her to do anything about it.  I know she’s lonely.  To make it worse most of her friends are dead.  Now she doesn’t even want to go to another funeral,” he told The Final Call.

“My family is working on getting my mom enrolled in senior center activities that will pick her up on a weekly basis.  My mom may go kicking and screaming but she’s going.  I’m for anything that will get her out of the house and help her make friends.  I would be happy if she met a male friend, too.  We are not meant to be alone.  God meant for a man and woman to be together.”