People who are lonely and isolated in their senior years tend to be in poorer physical and mental health than their contemporaries who are in loving relationships. These are the findings of a recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior that investigated links between social connections and health in older adults.
Companionship Is an Important Part of Healthy Aging
“Feelings of loneliness and isolation can affect older adults’ health in a number of ways. They can, for example, create stress, lower self-esteem or contribute to depression, all of which can have physical health consequences – either by affecting a person’s lifestyle choices or through direct effects on the body,” said Dr. Erin York Cornwell, a sociology professor at Cornell University and lead author of the study report.
Social isolation may even shorten your life expectancy, according to Dr. James Lynch, author of “The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness.” Human beings are social creatures throughout their lives. As people grow older, their need for social interaction remains the same, but their ability to satisfy this need may become diminished: They retire and lose contact with former co-workers; their children grow up and move away; they become widowed or divorced; their circle of friends shrinks. As a result, many elders find themselves increasingly deprived of the important benefits of companionship. Life becomes less satisfying and loses its meaning. Consequences are often severe depression and lack of will to live.
“Suicide is more common among older Americans than any other age group,” according to Jane E. Brody, a columnist for the New York Times who writes on issues of personal health. “While people 65 and older account for 12 percent of the population, they represent 16 percent to 25 percent of the suicides. Four out of five suicides in older adults are men. And among white men over 85, the suicide rate – 50 per 100,000 men – is six times that of the general population.
Older widowers and divorcees are at the highest risk. When wives die or move away, their husbands’ social connections often cease as well, especially when the women did most of the social networking. “Men are poorly prepared for retirement and don’t know how to fill in the hours and maintain a sense of usefulness when they stop working,” said Dr. Martha L. Bruce, a professor of sociology and psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.
“Many older people despair over the quality of their lives at the end of life. [We] think that sadness is a hallmark of depression. But more often in older people it’s anhedonia – they’re not enjoying life,” Dr. Bruce added.
Conversely, having loved ones to spend time with, making new friends and sharing experiences and interests with others can help decrease the susceptibility to loneliness, depression and illness. Nurturing new relationships and even falling in love again can bring back a renewed zest for life. Research has shown that seniors who remain sexually active enjoy better physical and emotional health than those who do not, according to Dr. Andrew Weil, professor of medicine and director of the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and best-selling author of numerous books on health and wellness, including “Healthy Aging – A Lifelong Guide to Your Physical and Spiritual Well-being.” “The youth culture would have us believe that sexual pleasure is the birthright of the young, that old people shouldn’t be thinking about sex, and that imagining old people having sex is distasteful. None of this is true. [Physical contact] is a basic requirement for optimum health,” he added. “This need does not diminish with age.”
Thankfully, the baby boomers are less inhibited in this regard than previous generations may have been. Today’s 55-plus crowd definitely does not think the party is over any time soon. And they know where to look for love in all the right places – via the Internet, of course. Memberships of dating sites are booming, and the older demographics are growing the fastest. “With so many older Americans unattached, living independently into their later years, and increasingly comfortable using the Internet, they too are logging on for love,” observed Stephanie Rosenbloom in an article for the New York Times (10/6/2011), titled “Second Love at First Click.” Not everyone is looking for true love, let alone marriage. But companionship and romance are in high demand and the dating industry is happy to help.
Living longer and healthier as we grow older through sound nutrition, physical exercise and mental activity is very important, but it’s only a worthy goal if the experience is enjoyable and gratifying – and that includes love.