Scientists have found that a long-term feeling of extreme loneliness can be deadlier for older people than being severely overweight.

Researchers from the University of Chicago have demonstrated that extreme loneliness and feelings of isolation can be twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people. The scientists tracked more than 2,000 people aged 50 and over for more than six years. Compared with the average person in the study, those who reported being lonely had a 14 percent greater risk of dying.

In a related study also conducted by the University of Chicago and published in Psychology and Aging, researchers found a direct link between chronic feelings of loneliness and increases in blood pressure. The research team studied 229 people aged 50 to 68 over a five-year period. Members of the group were asked to rate their connections with others, through statements such as “I have a lot in common with the people around me” and “I can find companionship when I want it.”

During the study, researchers found a clear connection between feelings of loneliness reported at the beginning of the study and rising blood pressure. The increase affected people even with modest levels of loneliness, according to the study’s findings. Among all the people in the sample, the loneliest people saw their blood pressure go up by 14.4 millimeters more than the blood pressure of their most socially contented counterparts over the four-year study period.

The findings come at a critical point, as life expectancy has risen and people increasingly live alone or far from their families. This isolation is having a serious effect on both mental and physical health. At any given time, between 20 and 40 percent of older adults feel lonely.

According to psychiatrist Ronald Pies, “it’s easy to assume that loneliness is simply a matter of mind and mood. Yet recent evidence suggests that loneliness may injure the body in surprising ways”. He cites a University of Pittsburgh study of the risk of coronary heart disease over a 19-year period in a community sample of men and women. The study found that among women, high degrees of loneliness were associated with increased risk of heart disease, even after controlling for age, race, marital status, depression and several other confounding variables.

Similarly, Dr. Dara Sorkin and her colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found that for every increase in the level of loneliness in a sample of 180 older adults, there was a threefold increase in the odds of having heart disease. Conversely, among individuals who felt they had companionship or social support, the likelihood of having heart disease decreased.

So what can a socially-isolated older person do to avoid loneliness and its associated health problems? People interested in staying engaged in the community can search an online volunteer database to find opportunities, special events and needs in our local community that fit their interests and availability at www.CommunityThreadConnect.org. Our local Senior Centers (located in Stillwater and Bayport) provide friendly environments for older adults to connect with others and participate in programs that enhance their well-being. Offerings range from exercise programs like aerobics to cards, bunco and mahjong, all offering ways to stay active and connected to others. For those who love to learn, classes include cooking, card making and crocheting to name just a few. All of these activities are highlighted in The Connector newsletter that is mailed six times a year. Call Community Thread at 6751-439-7434 to be placed on the mailing list. Stay connected. Your heart will thank you for it.

By Sally Anderson