Are We Failing Our Elderly? Loneliness Has Serious Health Consequences

Credit: Feans, Flickr

In the past we've been fed a golden image of retirement full of smiling faces enjoying 'hard earned' leisure time, but your older neighbours may be less content than you think. A disturbing amount of people over 65 suffer social isolation worsened by frailty, and we shouldn't ignore it. 

We are past the era of retirement and into...well no-one quite knows. It's clear the old retirement model is simply no longer possible, but exactly how aging populations will cope with changing demographics is another matter. As the golden era of retirement passes, is it time to tackle the myth of a happy old age? 

Old age shouldn't be lumped together

Old age usually denotes the over 65s, and so classifications have tended to stick to this grouping, although this includes those who live past 100. Too often groups are lumped together, with little sensitivity for their individual concerns and needs. 

Not so happy after all

In previous work 'older' individuals up to age 65 have in some cases been shown to be happier, but this apparently drops off after 65, according to new research. Previous work had suggested depressive symptoms can built until 85, but the latest project observing 5,000 individuals in Australia confirmed a mental decline in many people.

Poor physical health goes hand in hand with poor mental health

Depressive symptoms don't appear suddenly; they're unsurprisingly linked to other conditions that diminish quality of life. Mental wellbeing deteriorated alongside physical impairment, chronic disease and approaching death. Those living in better health were understandably happier. 

 

"These findings are very significant and have implications for how we deal with old age. We need to look carefully at the provision of adequate services to match these needs, particularly in the area of mental health support and pain management. Social policies and aging-friendly support structures, such as the provision of public transport and access to health care services are needed to target the 'oldest-old' adults as a whole"

 

Both physical and mental wellbeing are closely linked together. Too many people are living with conditions like arthritis which can make social activities very challenging. Poor mobility and health can thus force social isolation on many people.

Loneliness can kill

Being lonely can also seriously harm your health according to new research. Social isolation is strongly associated with chronic illness and earlier all-cause mortality. Work at the University of Chicago has confirmed fears that isolation can wreak damage on the body . 

“In humans, loneliness involves an implicit hyper-vigilance for social threat”

Humans are social animals, and the benefits of interaction and company in healthy aging cannot be overstated 

The study found that perceived social isolation causes a cascade of cellular changes, leading to direct changes in the immune system. Loneliness was up-regulating inflammatory gene responses and down-regulating anti-viral protection. The sympathetic nervous system was also more active in these people, making their 'fight or flight' mechanism more active then normal. We already know the harm stress can cause to the body, and it would seem loneliness does much the same thing. 

This activation raises levels of a hormone called noradrenaline, which is useful in short bursts, but in a prolonged period triggers production of an immature white blood cell type called an immature monocyte. This type of blood cell shows diminished anti-viral activity and increased inflammatory action. In healing injury inflammation plays a key role, but chronic activation causes widespread harm. The researchers also found lonely Rhesus Macaque monkeys undergo much the same processes when experiencing loneliness.

We need to act

Aging is an uncomfortable problem for governments to tackle, but we're currently failing upcoming and existing older generations. These findings highlight the deep human cost of aging on both society and the individual. If retirement is no longer possible, we must focus on improving physical health and providing better support networks for the oldest-old. Investing in anti-aging strategies will not only reduce disease, but provide more people with the freedom and dignity to pursue a life they deserve. 

The British charity Campaign to End Loneliness says that one million of us are already suffering from acute loneliness, while two and a half million over 60s fear they could end up similarly isolated.

Read more at Science Daily and The Telegraph