Connection is an incredibly powerful word. Before COVID-19, many people may have taken it for granted or failed to consider how fundamental it is in our lives. Forming connections and bonds with others is the essence of humanity. It fills our soul, it grounds us and helps us feel a part of the larger community.
Unfortunately, as we age, our world gets smaller. Connections may dwindle. Friends pass away. Family moves away. We may give up driving, further limiting social engagements. We may begin to experience isolation and loneliness.
Before the pandemic, statistics showed that over 40% of older adults said they were lonely (in the current environment, that number has undoubtedly increased). Nearly a third of Americans over 65 live alone, so it’s no surprise.
But there is a difference between being alone and being lonely. It’s often said that New York City is one of the loneliest places in the world. How can that be, with over 8MM residents crammed into the most densely populated city in the US? Proximity is not the same thing as true connection. Connections happen when people share mutual interests and respect for one another.
Lonely people are 50% more likely to die prematurely than those with healthy social connections. “Died of a broken heart” – you’ve probably heard that expression applied to someone who passed away not long after a spouse. In many cases, that was loneliness at work. Dr. Oz often talks about the deadly outcome of loneliness, “Death by despair has skyrocketed,” he says.
In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that the negative health effects of loneliness are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day! It almost sounds impossible, but it has been medically proven that loneliness reduces immunity, while increasing the risk of heart disease, diabetes and depression, as well as many other health conditions.
The healthcare world has finally acknowledged and embraced the lethal impact of loneliness. “Social Determinants of Health” is the new buzz – and isolation is one of the critical indicators of an older adult’s overall heath prognosis.
But here is the good news. It’s the quality of connections that is important, not the quantity. And while in-person connections and hugs (yes, hugs) are very beneficial to your health, a phone call, Facetime session or even a card or letter can help maintain those all-important connections. Think about those in your life who may being feeling alone and reach out. You could truly be a lifesaver.