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Dublin: 6°C Wednesday 1 December 2021

Loneliness is a health risk for the elderly

Loneliness has twice the impact of obesity on premature death.

Image: Gonzale via Flickr/Creative Commons

“FEELING EXTREME LONELINESS can increase an older person’s chances of premature death by 14 per cent” according to research by psychologist John Cacioppo.

A 2010 meta-analysis showed that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity does.

The consequences to health are dramatic, as feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being.


Cacioppo joined other scholars at a seminar “The Science of Resilient Ageing” in Chicago over the past week.

The researchers looked at dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age.

They examined the role of satisfying relationships on older people to develop their resilience, the ability to bounce back after adversity and grow from stresses in life.

Cacioppo said:

Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you.

Although some people are happy to be alone, most people thrive from social situations in which they provide mutual support and develop strong rapport.

Silver Demographic

Cacioppo says we are “experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age”. Speaking about America, he said:

Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65.

The researchers identified three core dimensions to healthy relationships:

  • Intimate connectedness – which comes from having someone in your life you feel affirms who you are
  • Relational connectedness – which comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding
  • Collective connectedness -which comes from feeling that you’re part of a group or collective beyond individual existence

Cacioppo said older people living alone are not necessary lonely if they remain socially engaged and enjoy the company of those around them.

However some aspects of ageing, such as blindness and loss of hearing place people at a special risk for becoming isolated and lonely.

Read: Column: Is loneliness in old age inevitable? Not in a caring society>

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