How Loneliness Wears on the Body: The Negative Effects of Social Isolation on Older Adults Today

We tend to think of loneliness as something in the mind or in the heart that makes us feel sad and blue in a vague, intangible way. However, there is a great deal of evidence that social isolation has specific, measurable effects on the body, and this becomes more acute as we age. Loneliness and isolation can take their toll on older adults, but with some love, care, and consideration, you can help keep your loved from feeling alone.

Immunity Decreases with Social Isolation

According to a new study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,[1. “Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation, October 21, 2015,] older adults who are socially isolated may be more susceptible to illnesses. These illnesses often involve bacterial and viral infections but can be chronic as well. According to the study, certain genes — such as those responsible for inflammation — became more active while others — like the ones that defend against viral infections — were suppressed. With this information in mind, it comes as no surprise that the isolated patients had a higher mortality rate than that of older adults in general.

Unmonitored Heart Disease Can Be Fatal

Heart disease is another common condition that can worsen as a patient has less and less contact with the outside world. Cardiac problems require a great deal of observation and updates to the plan of care. Older adults that suffer from heart disease commonly need regular doctor visits, medication monitoring, and regular, light, nutritious meals. Additionally, performing housekeeping tasks alone can be too strenuous for someone with a weakened heart. If no one is helping an older adult with heart disease to navigate day-to-day living, it’s easy to see how a heart condition can become fatal.

Falls Pose Serious Risk to Older Adults Living Alone

Many older adults are at risk for falls. This can be due to generalized weakness, decreased vision, and medications that affect balance. With prompt and appropriate attention, a fall can often be quickly remedied. But if no one else is around when an older adult falls, a fall can be deadly. Many older adults fear falls and for good reason: they don’t recover the way younger people do. While a middle-aged adult may get up with a few scrapes and bruises, older adults are much more like to break a bone – especially a hip. This is one of the biggest reasons older adults land in emergency rooms and the resulting mobility issues can lead to premature death.[2. “Elderly Women Who Break a Hip at Increased Risk of Dying Within a Year,” September 26, 2011,] Whether you decide to be available to your loved one at home or opt to hiring in-home care services, you can take simple steps to prevent your loved one from suffering an injury after a fall.

Depression Shouldn’t Be Underestimated

One of the most prominent diseases that isolated older adults suffer is depression. Many people think of this mental illness as something that only affects the emotions but make no mistake – depression involves changes in brain chemistry that impact everything from energy level to appetite. And when it goes unaddressed, a person can neglect other aspects of their health. This can lead to fatalities from infection, uncontrolled diabetes, and even suicide. Caregivers who suspect their loved one may be suffering from depression don’t have to feel overwhelmed – many places like IOA provide counseling services or telephone check-ins. Our Friendship Line offers crisis intervention and emotional support to seniors feeling lonely, anxious, or depressed.

Dementia Can Go Unnoticed

Dementia can be one of the most dangerous conditions for older adults who live alone. Forgetfulness, confusion, and wandering aimlessly can easily lead to injury. Most forms of dementia are degenerative, meaning they get worse over time. And whereas sickness, falls, and heart disease manifest physicals symptoms that can see and diagnose, recognizing decreasing cognitive function in your loved one can be trickier. If no one is around to witness the slow and ongoing cognitive decline, it’s too easy for avoidable tragedies to occur.

Social Isolation Doesn’t Have to Wear on Your Loved One

Social isolation isn’t just psychologically and emotionally painful. There are physical effects associated with the feeling of loneliness, and these effects are perhaps most acute in aging adults. One of the best solutions is simply to spend more time with your homebound family member, but if that’s not possible, there are other options. Consider hiring a home health aide for a few hours a week of companionship. In addition to the mental health benefits, they can take care of tasks like light cooking, housekeeping, and transportation. Whatever you choose to do, by being aware of the true effects of loneliness and keeping an eye out for warning signs, you can minimize their impact on your loved one.
If you’re unsure how to best help an aging loved one, the trained and compassionate staff at the Institute on Aging is here to help you make that decision and gain the best in at-home care for older adults. Contact us to find out more.

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Meet Pete, a proud Californian who faced significant challenges after suffering heart attacks in 2008. He ended up in a Skilled Nursing Facility and lost his subsidized apartment, leading to 12 years of isolation and depression. But with the help of the Institute on Aging, Pete's life took a remarkable turn.

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