The Pervasiveness of Being Lonely

by: Kathy Corbett | in Wellness

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Everyone is lonely from time to time and most of us have been even more so, courtesy of the pandemic, but certain demographics have been hit harder than most, one being older adults.   What used to be thought of as strictly an unpleasant emotional state is now being recognized for its damaging physical effects.  Identifying those in our lives who need help and learning what we can do has never been more important.  We spoke to a licensed family therapist, Dr. Manal Michail, LMFT, to provide some insight into this important matter and share some much-needed advice about managing our own loneliness and supporting others.

Statistics Behind the Physical Impacts

Studies published by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine have uncovered some sobering statistics about how loneliness affects our health. In addition to being associated with increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, loneliness exacerbates serious physical ailments:

  • “Social isolation significantly increased a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk that may rival those of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.” 
  • “Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia.”
  • “Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.”
  • “Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death, 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.”

Risk Factors

Consider the people in your lives that have experienced the death of a spouse, family member, or close friend, or have an illness, loss of mobility, cognitive decline, or vision or hearing loss.  These scenarios can result in greater degrees of loneliness because depression or embarrassment can lead to self-imposed isolation. 

When we asked Dr. Michail why older adults are even more prone to these feelings, she explained that “there is a generational shame about depression and anxiety that older adults often feel that restricts them from seeking help from professionals or support groups and sometimes even just talking to friends.”

There’s No Shame in it

For some, admitting to yourself that you’re lonely can bring feelings of angst and discomfort.  Admitting it to others can feel down-right taboo.  That’s because we falsely associate loneliness with weakness and can be quick to deny ourselves permission to be lonely. Dr. Michail has seen this in her practice and shared that “older adults often feel that emotional pain is to be “handled” within the self, however research clearly shows that the only way to heal emotionally from symptoms of depression and loneliness is by talking to family, friends, or a professional therapist.”

Expert Advice/Resources

As we emerge from COVID restrictions, it’s important to remember that for some loneliness may intensify.  For those who were lonely pre-COVID, the pandemic provided a reason to be lonely and a sense of understanding or “being in the same boat” that didn’t exist before. Whatever the situation, having compassion for yourself and others is key.  More importantly, remember that wanting to reach out and actually doing so are very different things, so make it a priority to connect with someone who needs your help.  You just might find that you’re a little less lonely too.  

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