People who are lonely and
isolated in their senior years tend to be in poorer physical
and mental health than their contemporaries who are in
loving relationships. These are the findings of a recent
study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior
that investigated links between social connections and
health in older adults.
“Feelings of loneliness and isolation can affect older
adults’ health in a number of ways. They can, for example,
create stress, lower self-esteem or contribute to
depression, all of which can have physical health
consequences – either by affecting a person’s lifestyle
choices or through direct effects on the body,” said Dr.
Erin York Cornwell, a sociology professor at Cornell
University and lead author of the study report.
Social isolation may even shorten your life expectancy,
according to Dr. James Lynch, author of “The Broken Heart:
The Medical Consequences of Loneliness.” Human beings are
social creatures throughout their lives. As people grow
older, their need for social interaction remains the same,
but their ability to satisfy this need may become
diminished: They retire and lose contact with former
co-workers; their children grow up and move away; they
become widowed or divorced; their circle of friends shrinks.
As a result, many elders find themselves increasingly
deprived of the important benefits of companionship. Life
becomes less satisfying and loses its meaning. Consequences
are often severe depression and lack of will to live.
“Suicide is more common among older Americans than any other
age group,” according to Jane E. Brody, a columnist for the
New York Times who writes on issues of personal health.
“While people 65 and older account for 12 percent of the
population, they represent 16 percent to 25 percent of the
suicides. Four out of five suicides in older adults are men.
And among white men over 85, the suicide rate – 50 per
100,000 men – is six times that of the general population.
Older widowers and divorcees are at the highest risk. When
wives die or move away, their husbands’ social connections
often cease as well, especially when the women did most of
the social networking. “Men are poorly prepared for
retirement and don’t know how to fill in the hours and
maintain a sense of usefulness when they stop working,” said
Dr. Martha L. Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry
at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
“Many older people despair over the quality of their lives
at the end of life. [We] think that sadness is a hallmark of
depression. But more often in older people it’s anhedonia –
they’re not enjoying life,” Dr. Bruce added.
Conversely, having loved ones to spend time with, making new
friends and sharing experiences and interests with others
can help decrease the susceptibility to loneliness,
depression and illness. Nurturing new relationships and even
falling in love again can bring back a renewed zest for
life. Research has shown that seniors who remain sexually
active enjoy better physical and emotional health than those
who do not, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of
medicine and director of the Program for Integrative
Medicine at the University of Arizona and best-selling
author of numerous books on health and wellness, including
“Healthy Aging – A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and
Spiritual Well-being.” “The youth culture would have us
believe that sexual pleasure is the birthright of the young,
that old people shouldn’t be thinking about sex, and that
imagining old people having sex is distasteful. None of this
is true. [Physical contact] is a basic requirement for
optimum health,” he added. “This need does not diminish with
Thankfully, the baby boomers are less inhibited in this
regard than previous generations may have been. Today’s
55-plus crowd definitely does not think the party is over
any time soon. And they know where to look for love in all
the right places – via the Internet, of course. Memberships
of dating sites are booming, and the older demographics are
growing the fastest. “With so many older Americans
unattached, living independently into their later years, and
increasingly comfortable using the Internet, they too are
logging on for love,” observed Stephanie Rosenbloom in an
article for the New York Times (10/6/2011), titled “Second
Love at First Click.” Not everyone is looking for true love,
let alone marriage. But companionship and romance are in
high demand and the dating industry is happy to help.
Living longer and healthier as we grow older through sound
nutrition, physical exercise and mental activity is very
important, but it’s only a worthy goal if the experience is
enjoyable and gratifying – and that includes love.
About the Author
Timi Gustafson RD is a clinical dietitian, health counselor,
book author, syndicated newspaper columnist, podcaster and
blogger. She helps millions of people with their concerns
about health, lifestyle and nutrition, both in her private
practice and through her websites and blogs. Timi has been a
resident of the Seattle area for many years. Her books are
available at amazon.com. Her articles and regular columns
appear in numerous news outlets nationwide and on her blog
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