As we get older, our social situation changes. The kids grow up and move away, we lose friends and sometimes spouses, we retire, and often, we lose the ability to do things that used to connect us to the world around us. It’s easy for older adults to begin to feel isolated, and this social isolation can be very detrimental. The connection between social isolation and mental health is so strong that this lack of contact with others has become a national public health concern. People who are socially isolated can begin to feel the effects not only in emotions like loneliness, but also in physical symptoms and cognitive decline. The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ensuing lockdowns and social protocols, have made social isolation in seniors even worse than before. While the problem of isolation and loneliness is not new, statistics from the Association of Health Care Journalists suggest that the strain of measures taken during the pandemic increased loneliness significantly in older adults. As of June 2020, the number of people over the age of 50 reporting feelings of isolation was at 56 percent, compared to 27 percent in 2018. Let’s take a closer look at the effects of senior social isolation and ask the important question: what can be done to mitigate them?
The Impact of Isolation
Senior isolation has been linked to cognitive decline and a decrease in the speed at which older people process information. After long periods of isolation, people often become physically inactive and depressed, with poor sleep quality, high blood pressure, and inflammation. All of these factors can contribute to cognitive decline. Researchers studying the link between isolation and cognitive decline have found that loneliness can cause the same types of brain changes found in people with Alzheimer’s disease. With both Alzheimer’s disease and long-term social isolation, certain proteins build up in the brain and alter its function. Recent data from Florida State University indicates that loneliness is associated with a 40 percent increased risk of dementia, for people of all genders, education, race, and ethnicity. In addition to loneliness, other stressors linked to isolation, like negative thinking, can also cause this protein buildup. In addition to cognitive issues, increased protein buildup in the brain can increase a person’s risk of illness and disease.
There’s evidence to indicate that isolation alters cells in the immune system and causes inflammation. Inflammation is not always a negative thing, as it can help in the healing process after an injury. However, unaddressed, it can increase the risk of chronic diseases. This means that isolation can result in a compromised immune system, making people more vulnerable to infectious diseases and viruses. Research out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people who are isolated and have pre-existing conditions like heart failure are 68 percent more likely to be hospitalized than their peers. These same people are at a 57 percent increased risk of emergency room visits and four times the risk of premature death. Sometimes, this is because loneliness and isolation are associated with depression, anxiety, and suicide, but people living in isolation are at a higher risk of premature death from all causes, as well. In fact, isolation is as much a risk factor as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Social isolation has been connected with chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and high blood pressure, and those who are socially isolated are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviors like failing to exercise, eating a poor diet, and smoking. What’s more, people who live alone are more likely to die early because of failure to notice changes in their own health.
Risk of injury
A senior who lives alone is more likely to experience complications from a fall. Loved ones may want to check on seniors often and move items in their homes that may cause falls. It may take a longer time for the fall to be discovered, putting the person at higher risk for serious injury or death. In addition to injury, falls can cause physical decline, feelings of helplessness, depression, and continued isolation. Even worse, older people are sometimes injured through elder abuse, which is more likely when they have a limited support system.
Supporting Seniors’ Physical and Mental Health
What can be done to protect older people from the dangers of isolation? It’s important for them to have meaningful relationships and consistent interaction with others. This benefits both their physical and mental health, and research indicates that people with strong, supportive relationships are 55 percent less likely to develop dementia. Strong social connections help people cope with stress more effectively, and feeling supported can even help decrease protein buildup in the brain over time. For those without family or friends nearby, technology can play an important role in helping them feel connected to others. Through social media or videoconferencing apps like FaceTime, WebEx, and Zoom, they can find ways to enjoy the company of loved ones, even if they live far away.
Staying Active Can Reduce Isolation
Remaining active is also an important component in decreasing feelings of isolation. Older adults can connect with others through exercise, whether it’s walking with a neighbor, attending a class, or taking a virtual group class at home. Similarly, taking classes to learn new skills or joining groups where people can bond over similar interests can be helpful, and this can be done in-person or online.
BrightStar Care Works to Prevent Social Isolation in Seniors
When you need help meeting the physical, mental, and emotional needs of an older relative, trust BrightStar Care. We know that facing the challenges of aging can be difficult, so we work hard to deliver the right care for your loved one and to be a partner you can turn to for support. Because we believe that caring is more than just a job, our nurses and caregivers offer the most professional compassionate care available. In the comforting, familiar surroundings of home, we offer a full range of care services to meet your loved one’s needs and help you when you need it most. Contact us or call 866-618-7827 to learn more about our services and let us know what we can do for you.