The Physical and Emotional Effects of Loneliness in Adults
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines loneliness as “being without company” or “cut off from others”, and refers to this as producing feelings of desolation and sadness from being alone. The UCLA division of geriatric medicine has found that, while 43 percent of older adults said they felt lonely, only 18 percent actually live alone. In other words, we can have rich lives, surrounded by many, yet feel the emptiness of being alone. They also noted that approximately 60 million Americans (equal to one-fifth of our population) has the sense of loneliness at some point in their lives. Therefore, we should be aware of how loneliness can impact our health.
While loneliness may lead to depression, they can be very different. Depression leads to a sense of low motivation, low energy and a lack of enjoyment. Those who suffer from loneliness may be fully functioning, yet have that nagging sense of emptiness.
Unfortunately, those who feel lonely or isolated can also get caught up in a self-fulfilling prophesy or loop. Those who are lonely are more likely to see the world as a threat, and always be “on guard”. They may remember more negative experiences or social information, and also expect negative social interactions. This can lead to stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, pessimism, and even hostility.
The impact of loneliness goes beyond the emotional effects. Researchers at UCLA have also found that of those who are lonely, 25 percent are more likely to die prematurely. They also have a greater risk of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, metastatic cancer, and also are more likely to have illness and inflammation. Poor sleep, misuse or abuse of alcohol and obesity are also seen in this group. John Cacioppo, a researcher at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience found that gene expression is different in those who are lonely. Their research showed that there is actually a molecular (cellular) change that leads to these health effects.
Naomi Eisenberger, a researcher at the Social and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory was also able to show that there is a connection between loneliness and physical pain. In the study, a virtual game was set up online. A ball was passed between participants, using this online format, then it was intentionally stopped. Eisenberger and her team noted reactions that ranged from people taking this personally and having hurt feelings to those who stated “I didn’t care about it anyway”. The reactions were correlated with brain scans of the participants. Those with hurt feelings (or rejection) had brain scans that showed a response in the part of the brain that deals with pain. The researchers took this a step further, and found that when they gave acetaminophen (generic Tylenol) to those with emotional pain, the same dose was as effective as those with physical pain. So, we now know that when we are hurt emotionally, we actually physically feel pain as well.
Loneliness and isolation is especially significant in our elderly, and even more so in those who may not have family to count on. As a family member, friend or neighbor you can impact those who are lonely. A Place For Mom lists “14 Ways to Help Seniors Avoid Isolation” and are as follows:
1. Make transportation available
2. Promote a sense of purpose while encouraging hobbies, group activities, Bridge, etc
3. Encourage the person to remain active in their church or place of worship
4. Give them something to care for (pets, plants or gardens)
5. Encourage a positive body image (grooming, maintaining physical exercise, a healthy weight)
6. Encourage hearing and vision testing to improve social interaction
7. Make adaptive technologies available (scooters, walkers, hearing aids)
8. Notify neighbors to help keep an eye on them
9. Encourage them to dine with others (not just social advantage, but may improve nutrition)
10. Address incontinence issues which may be a barrier to socialization
11. Give a hug (the human touch improves the sense of well-being)
12. Give extra support to those who have recently lost a spouse
13. Identify socially isolated seniors to public health professionals, especially if they have no family
14. Help out a caregiver (53% of caregivers feel isolated from friends and family)
Another great way to show someone that you are thinking them is offered by the Blue Ribbon Box company. They will send a monthly box to the person, personalizing it with special items, and offers puzzles and other things that also stimulate the mind. They can be found at www.blueribbonbox.com