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How Does Chronic Loneliness Affect the Health of Older Adults?

Kara-Marie Hall, RN, BSN, CCRNMona Bapat, PhD, HSPP
Published on January 31, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Certain life events can cause loneliness in older adults, such as the loss of a spouse, financial issues, and chronic illness.

  • Loneliness is associated with physical and mental health issues, such as heart disease and depression. 

  • To cope with loneliness, consider forming meaningful connections with others, such as your family or people who have similar interests as you. 

Portrait of an elderly woman with short gray hair. She is smiling softly as she sits on a bench outside in a park.
FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images

Humans are social beings, meaning we’re wired to connect with others. When we don’t, we can begin to feel lonely. For older adults in particular, chronic loneliness can have a negative impact on their overall well-being. 

Are you an older adult dealing with loneliness? Or perhaps you’re a concerned caregiver? If so, read on to learn how loneliness affects older adults and what you can do to help. 

Why are older adults at risk of loneliness or social isolation? 

There are several life events that can cause loneliness or social isolation in older adults, including:

  • Having a chronic illness — especially if your condition makes it difficult to move around

  • Losing your hearing or vision 

  • Experiencing financial trouble

  • Having a lack of transportation 

  • Living in a nursing home

  • Losing a spouse 

  • Losing friends and family members

  • Living alone

Keep in mind that there is a subtle difference between loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness refers to the feeling of being alone. This means that an older adult can feel lonely despite being around other people. What loneliness feels like can vary from person to person. That said, loneliness often includes feeling empty, misunderstood, or unwanted. 

Social isolation — or not having enough social connection — is closely linked to loneliness. Certain times of year, like around the holidays, can make older adults feel even more isolated and lonely. 

What health effects have been linked to loneliness?

Research shows that loneliness is associated with physical and mental health problems such as:

  • Depression 

  • Anxiety 

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Stroke

  • Cognitive decline (like frequent memory loss) 

  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

To combat this issue, it helps to know why loneliness affects our mental and physical well-being in the first place. 

Why does loneliness contribute to mental and physical health issues?

Research suggests that loneliness increases the level of cortisol — also known as the stress hormone — in your body. High cortisol levels can trigger a number of health issues, including heart disease. 

In addition, studies show that loneliness can be a cause and effect of certain mental health issues. For example, depression can lead to loneliness. But loneliness can also lead to depression. Together, they can significantly damage your mental well-being. 

Researchers found that loneliness can lead to low energy during the day. This, in turn, can lower your sleep quality at night. Not getting good enough sleep can increase your risk of depression over time. A lack of sleep may also be associated with dementia risk. And sleepiness or napping during the day may increase your fall risk. 

What are the signs that someone may be lonely?

People don’t always tell others when they are feeling lonely. It could be that they don’t feel comfortable sharing this information. Or they don’t know that they are, in fact, experiencing loneliness. Fortunately, there are many unspoken signs that can help you tell when someone may be lonely. 

These signs include:

  • Changes in mood, such as sadness, irritability, and anger 

  • Feeling isolated or disconnected from others

  • Changes in sleep (like oversleeping or not getting enough sleep) 

  • Lack of energy

  • Low self-esteem 

  • Decreased interest in hobbies

  • Changes in appetite, such as overeating or not eating enough 

How do you treat loneliness in older adults?

There are several ways to help older adults reduce loneliness. Generally, these strategies can fall into four broad categories

  1. Building social skills: This includes learning and practicing verbal and nonverbal communication skills that can help older adults have meaningful relationships with others.

  2. Increasing social support: Older adults who are socially isolated are at greater risk of loneliness. Therefore, it’s helpful to have friends, family, and other supportive people around consistently. Owning a pet or participating in a group hobby (such as a book club) can also help with loneliness. 

  3. Expanding access to social interactions: Certain barriers — such as no transportation or phone access — can make it difficult for an older adult to connect with others. It’s important for them to have the tools they need to enjoy social interactions with others. Addressing these needs can help expand access to connection and community.

  4. Addressing negative thoughts about being more social: An older adult may have negative thoughts — such as a mistrust of people — when it comes to socializing with others. Working to challenge these automatic thoughts can give older adults the courage they need to form meaningful relationships. One of the most common ways to change negative thinking around socializing is through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Managing loneliness is a journey that enables you to gradually gain the courage and strength to interact with others. It’s also a good idea to consult with your healthcare provider, especially if you believe that your loneliness may stem from a health condition. 

The bottom line

Loneliness affects many older adults for several reasons, such as a medical condition or the loss of family or friends. Over time, chronic loneliness can increase the risk of developing physical and mental conditions, including heart disease and depression. The good news is that there are ways to reduce loneliness in older adults. 

If you struggle with loneliness, reach out to your family and friends for companionship. Also, try to increase your opportunities for socialization. Practicing new social skills and making sure you have the tools you need to connect with others can help. Seek help from your healthcare provider if you feel isolated even after socializing regularly. 

For additional resources or to connect with mental health services in your area, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. For immediate assistance, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

References

Achterbergh, L., et. al. (2020). The experience of loneliness among young people with depression: A qualitative meta-synthesis of the literature. BMC Psychiatry. 

American Psychological Association. (2017). What is cognitive behavioral therapy?.

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GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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