“Feeling lonely (and doing nothing about it) makes no more sense than
ignoring that you feel hunger.”
--John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., University of Chicago
Feeling lonely? Or do you have a friend, relative or neighbor who is alone? Most people don’t want to admit they’re lonely because we’ve been taught to just tough it out. But that’s not good for you. Because new research has shown that, if unchecked, loneliness can actually harm you physically.
Pride and Your Health
There are 35 million people in the United States over the age of 65, and 33 percent of them live alone. By 2030, there will be roughly 70 million people over the age of 65. Whereas loneliness can impact just about anyone, it gets exponentially more common as we age.
Yet far too many people choose to suffer in silence.
According to Dr. Kay M. Tye, a professor at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at M.I.T., 80 percent of people over the age of 65 who report feeling alone or isolated simply choose not to do anything about it.
While pride and inner strength are admirable, we should never prioritize them over our health.
Other Reasons Loneliness Goes Untreated
Another major reason we may not be equipped to address our own loneliness is that, with age, comes the passing of our partners, friends or siblings; we might be alone for the first time in our lives. Simply, it’s been many years since we built a social network.
But what that 80 percent statistic also means is that, unfortunately, even in 2016, and even with everything we’ve learned about depression and isolation, that there’s still an unfortunate stigma associated with admitting you’re lonely.
Why Loneliness is the New Smoking
First, there’s no safety net. Most of us probably understand that an elderly person living alone is at risk of falling and becoming trapped. According to US News, falls are the #1 cause of death (due to injury) for people over the age of 65 in America.
But the dangers of living alone are actually much more acute than physical injury or even depression. New studies by John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., the director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, have found that loneliness imperils our overall health.
According to an article published in The New York Times, Cacioppo’s research proved that severe, short-term loneliness overstimulates our body’s fight or flight response, and subsequently increases cortisol, which spikes blood pressure, limits white blood cell production, increases fat and suppresses immunity while decreasing blood flow to vital organs.
Simply, loneliness not only places a strain on the heart, it means we get sick easier; we stay sick longer, and we are more prone to chronic illness.
How do you Beat the Threat Posed by Loneliness?
“I am who I am, I am what I am,
I do what I do and I ain't never gonna do it any different.”
Change is difficult. Most of us know that all too well. But isn’t that what makes life so interesting? Even the most-stubborn among us can adapt, if necessary.
Here are 3 ways for you, or for someone you know, to change course in life and hopefully realize a healthier and happier existence.
- Find and embrace your sense of purpose.
Over the last few years, I’ve dedicated myself to researching quality of life in retirement, and one thing is crystal clear: when I meet a retiree who is happy or tells me that they’ve never been happier, it’s usually someone who volunteers with a charity, nonprofit, or with children.
- Form relationships with your neighbors.
I know people who’ve lived in the same house for 30 years, and yet have rarely ever spoken to their neighbors. As we age, this is a habit that must be broken. All desire for autonomy aside, forming friendships with neighbors who can look in on you is a great way to feel connected and help you stay safe.
- Join a travel group.
A lot of single retirees don’t travel because they don’t want to do it alone. But from bird watching to bungee jumping to cruises to safaris in the jungle, the world is your oyster.
Beating loneliness means opening yourself up to new experiences. If you’re reading this, you’ve got a computer or a smart phone. Search “travel groups” in your area, and it won’t be a matter of if you can find a suitable outlet for your inner Sir Edmund Hillary, but, rather, what type of travel experience do you want to have?
Many of my clients have taken our advice and changed their lives for the better by joining a travel group.
At Hanson McClain, we work with people to help them enjoy secure retirements. And, yet, over the last decade, I’ve been witness to how everything has changed. For the Baby Boomer Generation, retirement is no longer an ending, it’s a beginning; a time of choice and experience and fulfillment. With more Baby Boomers founding successful startup companies than any other generation, our marketplace reflects this.
If you or someone you know is lonely, there’s never been a better time than right now to make the decision to break old patterns and habits and start anew.