Social Isolation and Loneliness Raise Health Risks for Seniors

Isolation and Loneliness are not Healthy for Seniors (NIA)

Seniors living in isolation are a growing problem in America. According to a University of Michigan study published March 3, 2018 in the Healthcare Journal one out of every five seniors lives in isolation, cut off from both friends and family. The National Institute on Aging (NIA) is sponsoring research to determine the difference between social isolation and loneliness, how these conditions affect the health of seniors and what interventions can be used to protect the health of the elderly from the effects of social isolation and loneliness.

Previous Research Linked Loneliness and Social Isolation to Bad Aging Outcomes

Previous research has shown that both loneliness and social isolation lead to bad aging outcomes. See our blog post from April 19, 2018 for more about seniors, isolation and health issues. Both loneliness and social isolation are linked to higher risks for poor mental and physical health conditions such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Heart Disease and recurring heart attacks
  • Obesity
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Cognitive Decline
  • Alzheimer’s disease AD)
  • Weakened immune system
  • Cancer
  • Delayed recovery from cancer
  • Death from all causes

The Cacioppo Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness

According to the Cacioppo Evolutionary Theory of Loneliness, loneliness sets off behavioral and biological processes that can lead to premature death in people.

John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and an NIA grantee was a leading researcher in social neuroscience. He noted that social isolation and loneliness were two separate conditions, but they were related. According to John Cacioppo, social isolation is the actual physical separation from other people by living alone, while loneliness is the stressful feeling of being alone or separated from a loved one and this can occur even when someone is surrounded by family and friends.

The Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles

According to Dr. Steve Cole, the director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose research is also being funded by the NIA, loneliness may cause the immune system to over promote inflammation in the body and this can lead to chronic diseases and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, speed up the buildup of plaque in the arteries, promote the growth and spread of cancer cells and weaken the immune system so that it cannot combat infectious and viral diseases.

Having a Sense of Mission and Purpose in Life Strengthens the Immune System

People who do volunteer work, caregiving or work for social causes that give them a sense of mission and purpose in life have stronger immune systems.

Social Isolation and Loneliness do not Have to be Found Together

Social isolation and loneliness do not have to be found together. In 2017 about 28 percent of American seniors, or 13.8 million people, lived alone, according to a report by the Administration for Community Living’s Administration on Aging of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. However, even though many seniors live alone, they are not lonely or socially isolated. On the other hand, there are people who feel lonely even though they are surrounded by family and friends.

High Risks for Loneliness and Social Isolation

  • Sudden death of a spouse
  • Separation from family and friends
  • Retirement
  • Lack of transportation
  • Loss of mobility or unexpected disability

Preventing Loneliness and Social Isolation

Engaging in purposeful and constructive activities with other people promotes longer life, better mood and may improve cognitive function.

Genetic Risk for Loneliness

Research using data from twin studies has discovered that some people are genetically prone to feeling lonely and this genetic risk also predicts cardiovascular disease, depression and metabolic diseases.

Seniors with Cognitive Impairment who Live Alone

Seniors with Cognitive Impairment who live alone may not get out to socialize, as they may no longer have a driver’s license and do not also get help with other kinds of transportation.

Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing

If a senior is in need of short-term rehabilitation or long-term skilled nursing care, this may help to end their social isolation. In fact, you should look for a facility for your loved one that offers a very rich program of recreational activities. The Van Duyn Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Syracuse, New York has recreational programs that encourage socialization. To read more about recreational therapy at Van Duyn see our blog post from July 11, 2018.


Seniors who suffer from feelings of loneliness or are in social isolation from both friends and family are at greater risk for all kinds of physical and mental health problems. It is to be hoped that the initiatives by the NIA to find interventions that can help seniors facing loneliness or isolation will be successful.


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