Everyone needs social connections to survive and thrive. But as people age, they often find themselves spending more time alone. Being alone may leave older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, which can affect their health and well-being. Studies show that loneliness and social isolation are associated with higher risks for health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline.
If you are in poor health, you may be more likely to be socially isolated or lonely. If you are socially isolated or feeling lonely, it can put your physical and mental health at risk. Adults who are lonely or socially isolated are less healthy, have longer hospital stays, are readmitted to the hospital more often, and are more likely to die earlier than those with meaningful and supportive social connections.
The number of older adults age 65 and older is growing, and many are socially isolated and regularly feel lonely. The coronavirus outbreak in 2020 brought even more challenges due to health considerations and the need to practice physical distancing.Older African American woman combats loneliness and social isolation by video chatting with her family on a tablet.
Loneliness and social isolation are different, but related. Loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone or separated. Social isolation is the lack of social contacts and having few people to interact with regularly. You can live alone and not feel lonely or socially isolated, and you can feel lonely while being with other people.
Older adults are at higher risk for social isolation and loneliness due to changes in health and social connections that can come with growing older, hearing, vision, and memory loss, disability, trouble getting around, and/or the loss of family and friends.
People who are socially isolated or lonely are more likely to be admitted to the emergency room or to a nursing home. Social isolation and loneliness also are associated with higher risks for:
People who are lonely or socially isolated may get too little exercise, drink too much alcohol, smoke, and often don’t sleep well, which can further increase the risk of serious health conditions.
People who are lonely experience emotional pain. Losing a sense of connection and community can change the way a person sees the world. Someone experiencing chronic loneliness may feel threatened and mistrustful of others.
Emotional pain can activate the same stress responses in the body as physical pain. When this goes on for a long time, it can lead to chronic inflammation (overactive or prolonged release of factors that can damage tissues) and reduced immunity (ability to fight off disease). This raises your risk of chronic diseases and can leave a person more vulnerable to some infectious diseases.
Social isolation and loneliness may also be bad for brain health. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to poorer cognitive function and higher risk for dementia, including and especially for Alzheimer’s disease. Also, little social activity and being alone most of the time may contribute to a decline in the ability to perform everyday tasks such as driving, paying bills, taking medicine, and cooking.
The Eldercare Locator connects the public to services for older adults and their families. This resource seeks to provide assistance for a wide range of issues affecting older Americans, including social isolation and loneliness.
Call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 or visit https://eldercare.acl.gov/ to get connected today.
For additional resources on older adults and social isolation and loneliness visit, Expand Your Circles: Prevent Isolation and Loneliness As You Age (PDF, 4.75M).