Loneliness is a silent epidemic inflicting Americans at an unprecedented rate. Baby Boomers have been coined as the “loneliest generation”, aging alone more than any previous generation in U.S. history. According to the latest census, one in every eleven Americans fifty years or older lacks a spouse, partner, or living child. This amounts to eight million people in the U.S. living without companionship or a close kin–a number that is only growing. Loneliness looks different for everyone; some people prefer to be alone whereas others feel insecure in their lone-time; being alone and feeling lonely do not go hand-in-hand. Many seniors live alone but do not have symptoms of loneliness. At the same time, those who are constantly surrounded by friends and family may feel consumed by underlying feelings of loneliness.
Spending more time alone is a natural effect of aging. Retirement shrivels social networks and eliminates a significant amount of social interaction; hearing loss and worsening mobility alter social patterns and activities. These natural occurrences of aging leave us vulnerable to the implications that come with it. Research has overwhelmingly linked social isolation/loneliness to deteriorating mental health, most notably depression and anxiety. While the implications of loneliness on mental health are more readily observable, the consequences on physical health are just as, if not more, alarming. Loneliness has been linked to a long list of health conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even early mortality. Research has found loneliness to be worse for longevity than obesity or physical inactivity. Loneliness alters the standard processes of immune cells to promote inflammation, which is vital for our body’s injury recovery. Those suffering from loneliness experience excess inflammation, which increases the risk of diseases by making it harder to fight off viruses. Furthermore, elderly with smaller social networks were found to be less likely to take their medications.
Staying active in any way can help combat/prevent feelings of loneliness. Some examples are spending more time outdoors, starting an exercise routine, enrolling in group classes, or participating in community activities. Being active stimulates your brain by releasing hormones that make you feel more positive and youthful. Volunteering is one of the most recommended solutions to loneliness. Doing service work provides the chance for social interaction, the opportunity to expand networks, and instills a sense of purpose. The feelings of satisfaction and purpose that come with volunteering have positive effects on health. People who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others live longer, have better overall moods, stronger cognitive function, and are confident in their sense of purpose.
While finding yourself alone more often is a natural part of aging, the health implications of loneliness should not be taken lightly. In order to gain a stronger sense of purpose and belonging, one should consider finding a new hobby, getting active, and/or volunteering in their community. No one should ever feel alone about their feelings of loneliness. Social circles naturally becomes smaller as we grow into old age, but this does not mean the possibility for new experiences and new connections is eliminated.