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Loneliness can affect anyone of any age and background – from an older person mourning the loss of a life partner to a young person who simply feels different and isolated from their friends. Furthermore, as our society continues to evolve and experience pandemics we introduce advances that also increase the risk of developing loneliness. From working more flexibly, often more remotely, to doing our shopping online, the actual warmth of human contact recedes from our lives. COVID-19 has made loneliness even more prevalent.

Across our communities there are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member, and more recently a year. There are people who miss the camaraderie of some company, the support of a friendly voice, or just someone who can make them smile or laugh to lift their spirits. The loss of social contact is incredibly damaging to our humanity and to the health and wellbeing of everyone affected. Indeed, research now shows that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as much as smoking.

The strategy to deal with this issue has to enable all parts of society to play their role. It includes supporting the development of business champions who will tackle loneliness in the workplace and tech companies who are addressing the challenges of isolation and bullying in cyberspace. It will help create new community spaces, for example by creating new community cafes, gardens and art spaces. It will also continue to grow the vital work of voluntary and charitable organizations. For one of the best ways of tackling loneliness is through simple acts of kindness, from taking a moment to talk to a friend to helping someone in need.

Loneliness isn’t new but the pandemic has compounded it. The way our society works is changing rapidly. This brings great opportunities – including new ways of connecting and communicating with others. But it also means it’s now possible to spend a day working, shopping, travelling, interacting with business and with public services, without speaking to another human being. And for some people that can be repeated day after day. So, as we continue to make the most of new technologies, ways of working and delivering services, we need to plan for connection and design in moments of human contact. The ways we live, work and relate to each other are shifting as we move towards a more digital society. Employment practices are changing and people are participating in society in different ways, like utilizing Zoom.com to connect virtually. We can work, shop, travel, and interact with businesses and public services utilizing email and/or texting rather than through talking to each other.

Alongside these changes, we understand now more than ever before about the negative impacts of loneliness. Loneliness is not new but we do increasingly recognize it as one of our most pressing public health issues. Feeling lonely often is linked to early deaths – on a par with obesity. Even health care costs for the federal Medicare program have been reported to increase by $6.7 billion in skilled nursing facility care and longer stays in hospitals due to loneliness. It’s also linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke; depression, cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Our vision needs to be for the country to be in a place where we all can have strong social relationships to decrease loneliness. Where families, friends and communities support each other, especially at vulnerable points where people are at greater risk of loneliness. Where institutions value the human element in their interactions with people, and where loneliness is recognized and acted on without stigma or shame, so that we all look out for one another. Today there seems to be more hatred and division than love, understanding, and giving.

Loneliness and social connections are deeply personal. Everyone feels lonely from time to time. But when people are always lonely they are likely to suffer significant ill health and other negative consequences. We need to focus on preventing people from feeling lonely all or most of the time. Human beings are social creatures. Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. Yet, as we age, many of us are alone more often than when we were younger, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. This in turn contributes to health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease. Fortunately, there are ways to counteract these negative effects.

People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has blown this out of sight. However, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities help maintain well-being and improve cognitive function. Even during the pandemic, we can socially interact, although it is more difficult. For example, I joined Donna Clontz in creating a friendly visiting call program to where we contact isolated elders by calling them and have a friendly conversation. This activity has been very rewarding for me as well as the isolated elders we are calling.

Certainly, losing a sense of connection and community changes a person’s perception of the world. Those of us experiencing chronic loneliness feel threatened and mistrustful of others, which activates a biological defense mechanism. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention. As a social species, we need to help each other, including our lonely parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is a public health issue which we need to deal with.

A National Institute on Aging researcher, Dr. Steve Cole, deals with the biology of loneliness and discusses how it acts as a fertilizer for other diseases.  Dr. Cole presents how the biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, which helps cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. His research shows that loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body. Therefore, people who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to some infectious diseases. Research shows that having a sense of mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells. Helping others through caregiving or volunteering also helps people feel less lonely.

In short, clearly isolation and loneliness need personal and policy interventions that increase older adults’ social integration which addresses not only their behaviors, but their overall surroundings. We need to concentrate our attention on the influence of social policies, institutions, and ideologies in the everyday experience of isolated older adults, which will “add life to years!”

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at larryjweiss@gmail.com or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.

Loneliness and Isolation: Huge Public Health Problems

Loneliness can affect anyone of any age and background – from an older person mourning the loss of a life partner to a young person who simply feels different and isolated from their friends. Furthermore, as our society continues to evolve and experience pandemics we introduce advances that also increase the risk of developing loneliness. From working more flexibly, often more remotely, to doing our shopping online, the actual warmth of human contact recedes from our lives. COVID-19 has made loneliness even more prevalent.

Across our communities there are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member, and more recently a year. There are people who miss the camaraderie of some company, the support of a friendly voice, or just someone who can make them smile or laugh to lift their spirits. The loss of social contact is incredibly damaging to our humanity and to the health and wellbeing of everyone affected. Indeed, research now shows that loneliness is as damaging to our physical health as much as smoking.

The strategy to deal with this issue has to enable all parts of society to play their role. It includes supporting the development of business champions who will tackle loneliness in the workplace and tech companies who are addressing the challenges of isolation and bullying in cyberspace. It will help create new community spaces, for example by creating new community cafes, gardens and art spaces. It will also continue to grow the vital work of voluntary and charitable organizations. For one of the best ways of tackling loneliness is through simple acts of kindness, from taking a moment to talk to a friend to helping someone in need.

Loneliness isn’t new but the pandemic has compounded it. The way our society works is changing rapidly. This brings great opportunities – including new ways of connecting and communicating with others. But it also means it’s now possible to spend a day working, shopping, travelling, interacting with business and with public services, without speaking to another human being. And for some people that can be repeated day after day. So, as we continue to make the most of new technologies, ways of working and delivering services, we need to plan for connection and design in moments of human contact. The ways we live, work and relate to each other are shifting as we move towards a more digital society. Employment practices are changing and people are participating in society in different ways, like utilizing Zoom.com to connect virtually. We can work, shop, travel, and interact with businesses and public services utilizing email and/or texting rather than through talking to each other.

Alongside these changes, we understand now more than ever before about the negative impacts of loneliness. Loneliness is not new but we do increasingly recognize it as one of our most pressing public health issues. Feeling lonely often is linked to early deaths – on a par with obesity. Even health care costs for the federal Medicare program have been reported to increase by $6.7 billion in skilled nursing facility care and longer stays in hospitals due to loneliness. It’s also linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke; depression, cognitive decline and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Our vision needs to be for the country to be in a place where we all can have strong social relationships to decrease loneliness. Where families, friends and communities support each other, especially at vulnerable points where people are at greater risk of loneliness. Where institutions value the human element in their interactions with people, and where loneliness is recognized and acted on without stigma or shame, so that we all look out for one another. Today there seems to be more hatred and division than love, understanding, and giving.

Loneliness and social connections are deeply personal. Everyone feels lonely from time to time. But when people are always lonely they are likely to suffer significant ill health and other negative consequences. We need to focus on preventing people from feeling lonely all or most of the time. Human beings are social creatures. Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive. Yet, as we age, many of us are alone more often than when we were younger, leaving us vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. This in turn contributes to health problems such as cognitive decline, depression, and heart disease. Fortunately, there are ways to counteract these negative effects.

People who find themselves unexpectedly alone due to the death of a spouse or partner, separation from friends or family, retirement, loss of mobility, and lack of transportation are at particular risk. The COVID-19 pandemic has blown this out of sight. However, people who engage in meaningful, productive activities with others tend to live longer, boost their mood, and have a sense of purpose. These activities help maintain well-being and improve cognitive function. Even during the pandemic, we can socially interact, although it is more difficult. For example, I joined Donna Clontz in creating a friendly visiting call program to where we contact isolated elders by calling them and have a friendly conversation. This activity has been very rewarding for me as well as the isolated elders we are calling.

Certainly, losing a sense of connection and community changes a person’s perception of the world. Those of us experiencing chronic loneliness feel threatened and mistrustful of others, which activates a biological defense mechanism. Research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death. The misery and suffering caused by chronic loneliness are very real and warrant attention. As a social species, we need to help each other, including our lonely parents, neighbors, and even strangers in the same way we would treat ourselves. Treating loneliness is a public health issue which we need to deal with.

A National Institute on Aging researcher, Dr. Steve Cole, deals with the biology of loneliness and discusses how it acts as a fertilizer for other diseases.  Dr. Cole presents how the biology of loneliness can accelerate the buildup of plaque in arteries, which helps cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. His research shows that loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body. Therefore, people who feel lonely may also have weakened immune cells that have trouble fighting off viruses, which in turn makes us more vulnerable to some infectious diseases. Research shows that having a sense of mission and purpose in life is linked to healthier immune cells. Helping others through caregiving or volunteering also helps people feel less lonely.

In short, clearly isolation and loneliness need personal and policy interventions that increase older adults’ social integration which addresses not only their behaviors, but their overall surroundings. We need to concentrate our attention on the influence of social policies, institutions, and ideologies in the everyday experience of isolated older adults, which will “add life to years!”

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