Loneliness can lead to physical health problems in old age, says new study

Loneliness can lead to physical health problems in old age, says new study

Loneliness can be as detrimental to your health as smoking or being obese, according to scientists, but a new study has found a way to ward off feeling alone in old age. Managing your expectations and accepting the facts of life in a care home in your 70s and 80s could be the answer to overcoming the issue.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego believe that accepting the norms of getting older can help people adapt to its challenges. They interviewed 30 people living in sheltered housing about the coping mechanisms they use to overcome loneliness.

Some of the individuals were proactive about finding companions, while others looked to religion or spirituality. All of the participants were aged between 67 and 92, with 85 per cent of them admitting they experienced moderate to severe loneliness.

Dr Dilip Jeste, lead author of the study, said: “Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity.  It is paramount we address the wellbeing of our seniors. They are friends, parents and grandparents of the younger generations.”

While around 42.6 million over-45s in the US complain of being lonely, the problem is not confined to the other side of the Atlantic. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK show that five per cent of adults in this country often or always feel lonely.

The common misconception is that loneliness just affects the mind, when in fact it can have knock-on effects for physical health too. One of the reasons for this is the stress hormone cortisol, which can cause swelling, weight gain and insulin resistance in the body when levels are significantly increased.

It’s also important for the brain to be stimulated regularly with personal interactions to keep it sharp. Without such companionship, dementia is a higher risk, as well as depression and insomnia, which can lead to wider health problems.

For the study, Dr Jeste and the team analysed the physical and mental health of all the participants with the help of the UCLA Loneliness Scale. It involves 20 questions and is used as a standard to measure loneliness through academia.

Individuals who score 28 or less on the scale are considered to have low or even no feelings of loneliness. At the other end of the spectrum, banking 43 points or more means a person experiences high levels of loneliness.

Worryingly, 63 per cent of those included in the study felt moderately lonely, and a startling 22 per cent were highly lonely. Only 15 per cent said that their levels were low or that they never felt lonely at all.
Loneliness in old age is common due to a variety of factors. The first and most obvious is that as people get older, many of their friends and companions may have died or moved away. Other issues can be to do with hearing loss or a lack of mobility, which blocks interactions with people close by or stops the elderly from making visits.

Being aware of the hurdles to communication, having patience and making regular visits can help older relatives and friends to feel less alone. It will not only have an impact on their mental state, but could improve their physical health too.