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Rewarding relationships important for healthy aging: How loneliness harms health

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Loneliness boosts the chances of dying prematurely

Researchers have found loneliness boosts the chances of dying almost as much as poverty for older adults. Loneliness from lack of rewarding social connections can raise the chances of premature death 14 percent according to findings presented at the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago.

Social support has an effect on health

John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago presented the findings Feb. 16 that suggest lack of companionship and social support can have a major negative impact on health on older adults.

For their study, the psychologist looked at a representative sample of adults over age-50 from the Health and Retirement Study, between 2001 and 2008 to find out how loneliness could impact mortality.

The results showed even fit adults can suffer ill health effects from feeling lonely and isolated from others.

Many people over age 50 are physically fit and healthy but could face health risks from the effect of loneliness.

What happens when we feel lonely

Social isolation has negative impact on health that the researchers say can be "dramatic". Loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, poor sleep and high levels of stress hormone cortisol that has been associated with higher risk of diabetes, memory loss and more. When older adults feel lonely they are also more vulnerable to depression. The result is altered gene expression that in turn lowers immunity, making older adults more susceptible to illness.

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Cacioppo there are some people are happy being alone, but most of us enjoy companionship.

The finding is important given the high number of baby boomers that make up the majority of the U.S.population.

"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65," he said. "People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality." What that means he says is people might want to think before they retire to Florida where they could become socially disconnected.

What types of relationships are important for a longer life?

Cacioppo and his colleagues from University of Chigaco have been studying loneliness and its impact on health. The researchers have identified three areas related to healthy relationships that can help people stay healthier and live longer:

  • Having an intimate connection with someone that affirms who you are
  • Mutually rewarding face-to-face connectedness
  • Being part of a group that is known as collective connectedness

It isn't about being alone the researchers point out, but instead about one's perception of loneliness that can negatively impact health and boost the chances of dying sooner. Staying socially connected is important with aging and something the researchers say can be accomplished by staying in touch with former co-workers, sharing good times with family and friends and from being a part of family traditions. Poverty boosts the chances of dying prematurely y 19 percent. Loneliness can also lead to an earlier death and raises the chance of early mortality 14 percent, according to the psychologists.

AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting
February 16, 2014
"Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging"


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