One is the Loneliest Number
Isolation late in life is hazardous, but preventable
Photo by Mohammed Mahdi Samei on Unsplash
This post is dedicated to my fellow introverts. Yes, we’ve had our moment of glory during the pandemic. While our extroverted friends were climbing the walls, desperate for human contact, we were just humming to ourselves as we settled into our cozy caves for business as usual.
Obviously we are wired differently than extroverts, who draw energy from being around others. We, on the other hand, enjoy occasional social contact but find it depletes our energy and necessitates a period of recharge. In other words, extroverts are like solar panels; introverts are more like cellphone batteries.
But no more gloating, please. While our natural instinct to retreat into our cave has been an asset during the pandemic, it poses significant danger for us, physically and mentally, as we face down our final decades of life. To put it bluntly, isolation is a killer.
The brutal facts
About 28% of older Americans (13.8 million) live alone, according to the U.S. Census. Many research studies have linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, compromised immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social isolation is a significant risk factor for premature death, “a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical activity.” Among heart failure patients, loneliness is associated with a nearly four-fold increased risk of death, a 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and a 57% increased risk of emergency room visits.
“Loneliness acts as a fertilizer for other diseases,” says Steve Cole, Ph.D., director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at UCLA. “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease.”
Get the picture?
Now, certainly there can be other causes of loneliness or social isolation besides our natural tendencies to shy away from engagement. Loss of mobility, illness, or lack of transportation are factors that may be outside our control. The one thing that is totally within our control is our attitude. Given the higher health risks of being isolated, it would be wise to work harder at staying connected.
Research sponsored by the National Institute on Aging shows that having a mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells. People who engage in meaningful activities with other people tend to live longer and have a brighter outlook.
And yes, you can be isolated and not feel lonely. Though isolation and loneliness are often lumped together, there is a subtle distinction. Isolation is a physical fact. Loneliness is an emotion. You can choose to be isolated and be perfectly happy about it. So if you think that’s you, feel free to cheerfully ignore all the dire statistics. But be warned: You’re playing long odds, and the House always wins.
What we can do
Some of us – especially males – prefer to sit back and wait for others to engage us. That may work if your partner is okay with being your social director, making all the plans, and just telling you when to show up (guilty as charged). But the passive approach doesn’t cure loneliness or isolation. We have to get up off our duffs and take some initiative.
If you’re still clueless, help yourself to a few suggestions:
Volunteer – find something that you can get excited about, whether it’s dog and cat rescue or fighting climate change. There’s good work to be done in the world, and we have time to do it. (Also, helping other people feels good.)
Hobby – take up something you’d like to learn more about – music, wood-working, chess – and find others who share your interest and want to learn with you.
Regular meetup – schedule a weekly gathering with a regular group of friends – a breakfast or lunch, a meeting in the park – and commit to showing up as often as you can. Friendships, like all good relationships, need steady cultivation.
Make family time – ditto for your relatives. Schedule time to keep in regular touch with the kids, the grandkids, and the siblings.
Get religion – attending a church, synagogue, or mosque puts you in proximity to other people and may open up possibilities for volunteering, hobbies, or new friends.
Consider a pet – even though they can’t help with the crosswords, they offer companionship, and possibly an excuse to get outdoors every day.
And finally, this advice: Do not be afraid to ask others for help. It’s not a weakness to need assistance.
Now, go get yourself connected!