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Few Friends and Loneliness Hurts Health for Elderly

Few Friends and Loneliness Hurts Health for Elderly

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Although not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks, research suggests. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don’t have the same health problems.

The study is the first to examine the relationships between health and two different types of isolation. Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need.

“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” said study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging.

However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. “The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support,” Waite explained.

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, Waite explained.

Older adults who are able to withstand socially isolating circumstances or adjust their expectations so they do not develop strong feelings of loneliness may fare better, the study suggests. “We need to better understand how older adults adapt to changes in their social relationships,” Waite added.

The work should help policymakers develop programs to compensate for the problems brought on by social disconnectedness and loneliness among older people. Aging often brings changes in social relationships as individuals retire, take up new activities, endure losses and experience health changes, the authors said.

REHACARE.de; Source: University of Chicago

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