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Taylor Mayad – Guest Contributor
Dec 26 @ 2:00 pm
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Courtesy of WellMed

By Dr. Sarah Gardner, Internal Medicine, USMD

The buildup to the holidays can often lead to letdowns when friends and family leave and life returns to normal. This can happen to people of all ages but can be especially difficult for older adults who are typically more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness.

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently published a study determining that nearly a quarter of all adults aged 65 and older are considered socially isolated and that isolation can lead to health risks. The CDC defines loneliness as the feeling of being alone, regardless of amount of social contact, while social isolation is defined as a lack of social connections.

The CDC study revealed that the impact of that social isolation and loneliness can lead to a variety of health issues, including higher risk for heart disease, stroke, dementia and even premature death. Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, mood swings and confusion also increase with lack or reduction of social interaction. People often find themselves unexpectedly isolated due to factors that include disability or lack of mobility; worsening vision or hearing problems;  separation from friends or family; illness or death of a loved one; and lack of access to transportation.

Older adults may be at even greater risk if they struggle financially; can’t leave their home; are a caregiver for someone else; live alone; have experienced a major loss or life change; have language barriers or experience discrimination in the area they live; are not engaged in meaningful activities or feel a lack of purpose; or have psychological or cognitive challenges, or depression.

All humans need social connection and interaction as part of their survival. Engaging in activities that are meaningful can boost mood and give people a sense of purpose.  In addition to living longer, research demonstrates that productive people have improved cognitive function and are better able to maintain their well-being.

Some recommendations for staying connected include:

  • Learn something new by signing up for a class in your community.
  • WellMed Senior Activity Centers offer several opportunities through classes and social activities Monday-Friday for people 55 and older. Classes include jewelry making, group fitness, dancing, computer and art classes, themed non-alcoholic happy hours and movie screenings, all offered at no cost. To learn more visit WellMedCharitableFoundation.org. Many participants turn the classes into social gatherings by going out to lunch with each other either before or after class.
  • Reignite your passion for a hobby you once loved but discontinued.
  • Explore volunteer opportunities.
  • Stay connected with your friends and family in person or through phone calls, email, video chats or social media.
  • Stay physically active, and consider group exercise, such a walking club or working out with a friend.
  • Find a faith-based or spiritual organization where you can engage with others in a meaningful way.
  • If you are able, adopt a pet. Animals can be a source of comfort and may also lower blood pressure and reduce stress.

If you or someone you know is feeling lonely or socially isolated, be sure to share your feelings with your health care professional. Being open and honest with your physician will help the doctor better understand how best to help you and can also offer resources available in your community. In turn, you may be able to stave off significant health issues that can be exacerbated by social separation and loneliness.