Can extreme isolation lead to a shorter lifespan? The experts at the University of Chicago say it can by as much as 19%.
According to John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at The University of Chicago, there is a dramatic difference in the physical and mental health of older adults who are socially engaged and those who are isolated. His research showed that isolation could lead to:
- Difficulties with sleep
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased depression
- Higher levels of the stress hormone, cortisol
Each of these can cause problems with the body’s immune system ultimately contributing to a shorter lifespan.
Benefits of Staying Socially Engaged as You Age
Cacioppo’s research credited staying engaged with others and maintaining healthy relationships will help make people more resilient. That gives them the ability to bounce back more quickly after an injury or illness.
In a similar study conducted by epidemiologist Andrew Steptoe of University College London and his colleagues, trial results showed an even stronger connection. This study assessed social isolation in 6,500 men and women aged 52 years and over. One important distinction is that they used isolation and loneliness as separate terms. Researchers measured social isolation in terms of the amount of contact participants had with family and friends, as well as their engagement with other groups and organizations in their community. They found that the most socially isolated participants had a 26% higher risk of dying. While they believe addressing loneliness among older adults is important, it is social isolation that impacts mortality.
What Can Families Do to Keep a Loved One with a Disability Socially Engaged?
Here are a few suggestions that might help, especially for families separated by long distances.
- Make sure some type of transportation is available if your loved one doesn’t drive. Helping them maintain involvement in their community often requires finding ways for them to get around town.
- Hearing and vision impairments are sometimes a barrier that prevents older adults from staying active. Be certain they have yearly eye exams and hearing tests as recommended by their physician. They may need new glasses or a hearing aid.
- If they are a part of a church or religious organization, work with that group to find ways to keep your loved one involved. They may be able to offer assistance with transportation and friendly visitor programs.
- If your loved one is able to manage it, consider buying or adopting an older dog to keep them company. It can help give them purpose, as well as encourage them to get regular exercise if they have to walk the dog each day.
- Use video chat or similar technologies to allow your loved one to have “face-to-face” interactions with people every day.
- Consider utilizing the services of an in-home care agency to help support social needs or a professional care manager.