Seniors suffering from severe loneliness are nearly twice as likely to die. That’s the bad news. The good news: more Canadians are living with a conjugal partner as they enter their senior years therefore maintaining connections for successful aging.
Research presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science was pretty dire. The impact of loneliness on premature death is nearly twice as strong as the impact of disadvantageous socioeconomic status or being obese. Loneliness increases the chances of dying early by almost 20 percent. Seniors facing loneliness may lack sleep, have elevated blood pressure and rises in stress hormones.
John Cacioppo, at the University of Chicago, conducted the research on 2,100 adults 55 and older. He identified three core dimensions to maintain healthy relationships to avoid isolation and age successfully.
- Intimate connections from having someone who affirms who you are (spouse or partner)
- Relational connectedness from mutually rewarding face-to-face contacts (friends)
- Collective connectedness from being part of a larger group
Cacioppo is concerned because of the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers who will face these challenges. “Humans are after all inherently social beings. When people are asked what pleasures contribute most to happiness, the overwhelming majority rate love, intimacy, and social affiliation above wealth or fame, even above physical health,” says Cacioppo.
Canada’s silver tsunami may be happening but with many people still in a intimate couples relationships. Statistics Canada recently reported that between 1981 and 2011, the share of seniors 65 years of age and older who lived with their spouse or partner increased. This means we have a growing population who will have intimate connections longer.
Two factors were cited as reasons for the rise in married older couples. The first is linked to an increase in life expectancy while the second is the growth in senior couples that are closer in age. In 2011, almost half of Canadian senior couples had an age difference of less than three years – an increase of 40% from 1981!
Most seniors experience one union (married or common-law) but a growing number are in a second union either because of death of their partner or divorce. In the upcoming cohort of seniors i.e. those aged 55 to 64 years, three in 10 will experience at least one union compared to 19 percent in current seniors.
The transition to “unmarried” status is where the health risk of loneliness occurs for seniors. This is a challenging period for their financial, emotional and physical well-being. During these times it becomes important to cultivate other relationships with friends and groups to find connections so as to not become lonely.
Some personal strategies that seniors use to prevent and reduce loneliness can include:
- Smile and make small talk with a person next to you
- Be a friend and show interest in others
- Become involved in a charity, club or community centre
Cacioppo says “Feeling lonely isn’t only unhappy; it’s unsafe. That’s why it’s critical to remain active and engaged in your world, tending old friendships and forging new ones, taking part in group activities that connect you to other people.”
Photo by SalFalko, Creative Commons License