According to the latest Surgeon General’s Advisory, loneliness and isolation have become a significant public health challenge in America. Loneliness refers to the perception of having few or no meaningful connections with others, while isolation means objectively having few social relationships and infrequent social interactions. In a 2022 study, only 39% of adults in the U.S. said that they felt emotionally connected to others. In recent years, the number of lonely adults in America has been steadily on the rise, with about one in two Americans reporting feelings of loneliness.
The number and quality of our social connections can have a drastic impact on our health. Multiple studies have found that loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. One study found that being socially disconnected is similar in impact to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, loneliness and isolation are more widespread than many other major health issues in America, including smoking, obesity, and diabetes.
For older adults, loneliness and isolation are associated with accelerated cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Chronic loneliness and isolation can increase the risk of developing dementia by 50%, and cognitive abilities have been found to decline 20% faster in older adults who reported loneliness. On the other hand, more frequent social engagement is associated with better cognitive health and may protect against dementia.
According to the report, social isolation among older adults alone accounts for an estimated $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually. This is largely due to increased hospital and nursing facility spending. Taken together, the evidence suggests that investing in social connection is one important way that the healthcare sector can address cognitive decline in the older adult population.
Research not only shows us the effects of loneliness and isolation on our wellbeing. It also shows us how our level of social connection is able to make such a large impact on our overall health. Studies have found that social contact influences our health through three main channels: our biological, psychological, and behavioral processes. Social contact affects these three processes, which in turn impact our health.
Social connection plays a large role in what happens within our bodies throughout our lifetime. It can affect specific biological processes such as our immunity, cardiovascular regulation, and gut-biome interactions. Keeping these systems well-regulated is critical for our health and can contribute to protecting us from disease. Increases in blood pressure, stress hormones, and inflammation can all negatively impact these systems.
Chronic inflammation in particular has been implicated as a factor in many illnesses. These include cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence shows that isolation, or even perceiving oneself to be isolated, is associated with higher inflammation. Having little social support also contributes to higher inflammation. Having higher levels of social connection can help us remain healthy and may reduce the risk of disease.
Our social connections can affect the way we think, including our sense of meaning and purpose. For adults across the globe, social relationships, especially with close family and friends, are found to be an important source of meaning, purpose, and motivation in their lives. Having a sense of purpose can help us stay healthy because it inspires us to pursue our goals, including those that are fitness-related.
Higher levels of social connection can protect us against the negative health risks of stress. Chronic stress increases the risk for mental health conditions and has been linked to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. People with higher social connection have more opportunities to access social support. Knowing that our friends and family have our back affects how we cope with stressful situations. People who are isolated tend to perceive challenges as more stressful compared to those who have access to social support.
Our level of social connection is tied to our lifestyle. It affects the choices we make when it comes to health-related behaviors such as diet, sleep, and exercise. For example, we may be more likely to listen to a loved one who encourages us to exercise or expresses disapproval of our unhealthy habits. People who are more connected also tend to follow treatment plans more closely, as their loved ones can remind them to follow their doctor’s instructions.
Studies show that the lifestyle choices of our social group can influence our own decisions about our health. People are more likely to be physically active if their friends also exercise, for instance. However, the same is true for unhealthy behaviors — people are less likely to quit smoking if their friends smoke. In this case, it’s not just the level of social connection that matters. The norms and behaviors within our peer circle also affect our behavior and impact our health.
Even though loneliness poses a comparable health risk to smoking, obesity, and diabetes, less than 20% of people who often feel lonely or isolated recognize it as a major problem. According to the Surgeon General’s Advisory, healthcare workers can help by acknowledging social connection as a priority for health. You can raise awareness with the residents in your senior living or skilled nursing community to make sure they understand the health risks of loneliness and isolation. Given that loneliness is a risk factor for cognitive decline, it’s even more important to make socializing a priority as we age.
The good news is that socializing can create what’s known as a virtuous cycle. Making an effort to be social can reinforce positive behaviors that in turn lead us to seek more opportunities to socialize. Your senior living community’s life enrichment program can provide your residents with opportunities to form friendships, seek social support, and connect with others. Engaging residents in meaningful activities can have a positive effect on their behavioral and psychological processes, which in turn affect health.
If you want to learn more about this topic, you can read our blog on how loneliness and isolation impacts older adults. You can also reach out to us to have a chat about how a resident experience platform such as Welbi can help life enrichment professionals engage with residents and plan meaningful programs that promote social connection.
Katie is a member of Welbi’s Customer Experience team! She has a background in communications and recreation and is passionate about older adults, exercise, coffee and people.
Holly is a member of Welbi’s Marketing team! She has a background in communications and marketing, and is a compassionate individual who loves team work, story telling, and wellness.
Wendy is a student in the Honours BA in English program at the University of Ottawa, where she has won numerous awards for her writing.
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