We all know that lifestyles can have a serious impact on a person’s health. If most of us had to guess, we would probably name smoking as the greatest health hazard, with excessive drinking and/or obesity coming in second.
We would be wrong.
Or at least we would be wrong if we talking about the elderly. A study published recently in the Archives of Internal Medicine drew conclusions about how environment affects the elderly. It found that indeed smoking and excessive eating and drinking didn’t help, but what most severely impacted health and resulted most often in death was neither of these lifestyle choices. What was the most threatening was loneliness.
The study covered 1,604 adults, age 60 and over. Loneliness was defined as a “sense of not having meaningful contact with others, accompanied by painful distress.” Some 43 percent of the group reported those feelings. About 30 percent of the 43 percent reported that loneliness was sometimes an issue and 13 percent stated that they were often lonely.
The study tracked the participants over six years and during that period the incidence of loneliness stayed fairly constant. What shifted dramatically were the health statistics. The self-reported lonely were almost twice as likely to report declining functional abilities and almost twice as likely to die.
Here at Midnight Sun Home Health Care we’re gratified that science is beginning to catch up with some of our own observations. In our experience, part of the reason for declining health might be purely practical. Isolated people are not as apt to eat regularly and nutritiously, to take their medications or to access help in a crisis.
But the study’s authors were pretty sure that lack of physical caretaking alone could not account for all of the functional decline and the mortality and this falls in line with our own observations, It seemed that the condition of being lonely, in and of itself, was a health hazard. One expert who has been studying the phenomenon is willing to speculate why.
“There is growing evidence that both loneliness and social isolation are related to biological processes that may increase health risk, including changes in immune and inflammatory processes, blood pressure and disruption of hormones,” he says.
He came to the conclusion that the condition of loneliness acts on and compounds the effect that stress has on the sufferer and exaggerates the way humans process it. This makes sense. Many of us have experienced older people who become less and less able to weather life’s ordinary stresses. If a ride is late, a grocery item is missing, if they misdial a number—those little adversities can provoke out-of proportion reactions. And if we dismiss this as a normal part of aging, we may be missing something important. It may be that it is loneliness that is working to cause minor incidents to have the impact of major ones.
Here in Alaska we need to be particularly conscious of the mental health of our elderly loved ones. Even for the most outgoing and adventurous among them, our long, dark winter months can enable a tendency to isolate.
The answer is not necessarily more comprehensive snow removal arrangements but more companionship. Because if the loneliness study’s authors are right, this tendency builds on itself. The more isolated our loved ones become, the more ominous to them looms the risk of an accident or a fall, which results in more loneliness which results in more fear.
At Midnight Sun Home Health Care we have seen how the physical and mental condition of our clients improves under steady care. Not only does our staff handle health-enhancing practical chores but we offer something that might be more valuable–a regular, steady dose of companionship. And almost always, as our clients grow to trust and depend on our company, they have seemed to become happier and healthier people.
These new studies indicate that’s no coincidence.