Loneliness can make us sick, but here are tips to fight back

A woman stands alone at the beach, deep in thought.

Humans are social animals. We tend to thrive when we interact with other people.

The isolation that people are feeling due to COVID-19 has created opportunities for public health officials to study the consequences of loneliness on mental and physical health.1 But loneliness and social isolation was an issue well before the COVID-19 pandemic exposed these types of feelings to the broader public.

Whether they’ve lost the connections they had when they were working, or their children have grown, or they have a health condition, older adults find that sometimes it becomes harder to socialize than it once was. In many cases, close friends have died or even a spouse.

In January 2019, the federal Health Resources & Services Administration used the term “loneliness epidemic” to describe the situation among older people, saying 43% of seniors reported feeling lonely on a regular basis.2

What’s more, this loss in social support may make us sick. The same federal agency cited research showing loneliness as “more dangerous than obesity and as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”3 In 2016, an analysis of studies from around the world found that a lack of social interaction is associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.4

So that’s the bad news. The good news is that there are many ways to combat loneliness. While no single method works for everyone, here are a few ideas according to researchers:

  • Maintain your existing relationships as best you can. Keep in touch with the people you care about. Video calls are a good way to “see” friends. When an old friend says, “We ought to get together and have lunch,” follow up. Have that lunch.
  • See if there’s a neighborhood organization in your community. You can mingle with neighbors. Maybe the group has a potluck supper.
  • Explore moving to a senior living community or sharing your space with a dear friend.
  • Mix with people who share your interests. Attend a gallery opening, lecture or concert. Join a book club, cooking group or health club.
  • The church, synagogue or mosque near you would probably enjoy seeing a new face. Go ahead and call or attend a service.

One route people may take after they retire is volunteering for a cause they believe in. According to an organization called HelpGuide, volunteering can help you make new friends, learn new skills and even feel happier and healthier.5 Groups such as VolunteerMatch work with you to match your interests with volunteer opportunities in your area.6

Sources:

  1. “Living with loneliness as COVID-19 pandemic rages on,” Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hsph-in-the-news/living-with-loneliness-as-covid-19-pandemic-rages-on/, opens new window
  2. “The ‘Loneliness Epidemic,’” Health Resources & Services Administration, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.hrsa.gov/enews/past-issues/2019/january-17/loneliness-epidemic, opens new window.
  3. “The ‘Loneliness Epidemic.’”
  4. Nicole K. Valtorta et al., “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Coronary Heart Disease and Stroke: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Longitudinal Observational Studies,” Heart 102, no. 13 (July 2016): 1009–16, accessed March 26, 2021, doi:10.1136/heartjnl-2015-308790.
  5. “Volunteering and its Surprising Benefits,” HelpGuide.org International, last accessed March 26, 2021, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/volunteering-and-its-surprising-benefits.htm, opens new window.
  6. VolunteerMatch, last accessed September 4, 2019, https://www.volunteermatch.org/, opens new window.