Which is worse for your health: eating a big ice cream sundae every day or staying home alone on a regular basis?
Research suggests that being alone is a greater threat to your health than obesity. In fact, social isolationism is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Even people who prefer to be alone are risking their health by not interacting with others. And just because you’re married does not mean you can’t suffer from loneliness and isolation.
A Brigham Young University study found that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death by about 30 percent. BYU psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad said her research leads her to believe that we are facing a “loneliness epidemic.”
|SOCIAL ISOLATION BY THE NUMBERS
42.6 million — Number of adults over age 45 estimate to be suffering from chronic loneness.
More than 25% – Of the U.S. population lives alone according to the U.S. Census
$1,608 – The average additional cost to Medicare for each older person who has limited social connections.
$6.7 billion – Total added Medicare cost each year because of social isolation
The increased cost can be attributed to higher spending on hospital care and skilled nursing facilities. This finding suggest that people who are social isolated may need to stay in a hospital or nursing facility longer because of their lack of a strong support system.
Source: Stanford University and AARP studies
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.
“Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” said Holt-Lunstad. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
Older adults are at greater risk of being socially isolated or lonely. Health and other issues that are part of growing old play a role. Hearing loss, a fall that affects mobility or the loss of a spouse are among the risk factors.
The first step in combating the problem is to recognize it. The AARP Foundation has set up a website, connect2affect.org, with information, resources and a self-assessment to help you determine if isolation is affecting you.
And just as you take steps to live a healthy life, you should take steps to make sure you are living a social life.
The obvious first step is to maintain your existing social relationships and to seek out new friends. Ask people over for coffee, or invite them to join you for an outing. Schedule time each day to call a friend or visit someone. Meet your neighbors. Take a class to learn something new while expanding your circle of friends. Use social media, like Facebook, to stay in touch with friends long-distance or keep in touch the old-fashioned way — write a letter.
If you are planning to retire, think about how you’ll maintain your social network.
Research shows having a sense of purpose — a reason to live — not only keeps you socially active, it can also lengthen your life an average of seven years.
Volunteering, being active in church, having a hobby, visiting your local senior center, following sports teams or taking trips to Las Vegas with friends can give you a sense of purpose and keep you socially active.
If you are feeling isolated and alone or know someone who is, reach out for help. Social isolation and loneliness are not just about your quality of life. It’s about living.
Barbara Kim Stanton is the state director for AARP Hawaii, an organization dedicated to empowering people to choose how they live as they age.