The problem is considered so serious — and widespread — that it has its own Twitter hashtag #lonelinessepidemic.
Nearly half of Americans in a poll conducted earlier this year reported feelings of aloneness and or being left out.
This isn’t just an emotional issue. It increases the risk for health problems such as heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s diseases, researchers have found.
Social isolation increases the likelihood of death by 29 percent, according to a study by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University.
The problem is most often associated with adults as they age, and as partners, family members and friends die.
Yet the problem doesn’t just affect older adults. A poll earlier this year by the national health-care organization Cigna found that young people 18 to 22 years had the highest loneliness scores among all age groups.
Health risks can be reduced by steps such as supporting and maintaining existing relationships and building new ones, Holt-Lunstad said during a recent webinar on the health impacts of loneliness sponsored by the National Institute for Healthcare Management.
The social factors that can influence health of older adults is a topic that’s often discussed at conferences, said Farrell Fleming, executive director of the Edmonds Senior Center.
Typically, the factors that most influence a person’s health is about 20 percent medical, he said, and much of the rest is social connections.
Filling that need plays a major role in how community centers for older adults operate both locally and nationally. “We’re keenly aware of it,” Fleming said.
People talk about going into a class of strangers and coming out with friends, he said. “They come because of a common interest,” he said. That often expands to going out for lunch after class. “It’s not so much we try to do this, but create the setting where it happens in a natural and effective way.”
Rebuilding relationships is especially important as people age. The longer they live, the greater the chances that their core group of close relationships will shrink.
“People do die on you,” Fleming said. “The key thing is to replace them with good people you end up getting close to.”
The associations between social interaction and health is relatively new area in geriatric studies, said Dr. Wayne McCormick, head of gerontology and geriatric medicine for UW Medicine.
Even so, the connections between social isolation leading to health problems is remarkably strong, he said.
It’s not uncommon for people who live alone to lose perspective on themselves “because there’s no one to bounce things off of,” McCormick said.
Isolation can cause other problems, too, such as not eating well and losing weight because their diets become less varied and nutritious, he said. They also tend to become far less active, not even taking a walk around the block.
All these issues can cause incremental changes, he said, which over time can add up to having substantial impacts on health.
Although studies show social interaction can help, each person has a different set point for how much they want to be around other people, McCormick said.
One example is one of his patients, an older woman who lives by herself who is unusually intelligent and a great conversationalist, but has some mental health problems.
For a while, caregivers were sent to her home a few times a week, thinking it would reduce her isolation. But she didn’t like it, summarizing her dislike as “they just talk too much.”
So instead, McCormick suggested arranging for her to be brought to a center where she could meet other people. She said she might give that a try.
“It’s all about connecting,” he said. “If the planets align and she meets a couple of people she likes, we’re in. It’s all about chemistry.”
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the numbers: Loneliness and isolation in America
46 percent: Report sometimes or always feeling alone.
43 percent: Sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they are isolated from others.
27 percent: Rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.
20 percent: Rarely or never feel close to people.
Who it affects
Cigna, a national health-care organization, surveyed 20,000 adults earlier this year.
Researchers found these issues of social isolation and loneliness affect both young and older adults.
Adults 18-22 had the highest loneliness scores, while those 72 and older had the lowest.
More than ¾ of those 72 and older ranked their health as good, very good or excellent, while 65 percent of those 18 to 22 ranked their health as as good, very good or excellent.
Loneliness and social isolation can lead to serious health problems such as: increased risk for heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.
Source: Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Brigham Young University