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Could the effect of loneliness in old age be worse than obesity? The answer is yes, according to a wide-ranging US study investigating the health effects of social isolation.

We’ve long known that loneliness in old age has an emotional effect, but are only now starting to fully understand the impact loneliness can have on overall physical health.

Researchers in the US looked at 218 studies into the health effects of social isolation and loneliness, involving nearly 4 million people.

Lead author Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, said the results of the study highlighted that people should not only be planning financially for their retirement and beyond but also socially.

Loneliness worse than obesity and comparable to smoking

The research outlines that loneliness and a lack of social connections can be worse for us than obesity and physical inactivity and a risk factor for early death, comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues discovered that lonely people had a 50 per cent increased risk of early death, compared with people who have good social connections. In contrast, obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by about 30 per cent.

Loneliness has also been proven to be connected to an increased risk of cognitive decline and depression.

RELATED CONTENT Tracey Silvester discusses this research and its impact on seniors:

Why the elderly are at greater risk of loneliness

According to the Campaign to End Loneliness in the UK, there are two different types of loneliness. The first is the emotional loneliness we feel when we miss the companionship of a particular person, often a spouse, sibling or best friend. The second is known as social loneliness and is experienced when we lack a wider social network or group of friends.

Tracey Silvester, Executive Manager of Envigor Home Care, says that as we age the risk of both forms of loneliness can increase.

“Unfortunately, it’s a time where we start losing our friends and life partners and mobility issues can impact our ability to get out and connect with the greater community,” says Tracey.

“It’s also when ill health can affect one member of a couple, leading to one partner taking on the caring role which also can lead to isolation and loneliness. A solution here can be accessing aged care where couples can stay together.

How aged care communities can help older people suffering from loneliness

While the majority of older people in Australia are hoping to stay in their own homes as they age, many haven’t thought about the impact loneliness can have if they end up living alone.

While you may have family and friends who will visit and help out, the impact of being alone if your mobility decreases and your family is at work during the week can’t be underestimated.

Related content: Aged care lifestyle at Seasons

Loneliness in old age risk factors

While many older people do enjoy their own company and may not tell you they are feeling lonely, there are some personal life changes that can lead to loneliness, including:

  • Poor health
  • Sensory loss
  • Loss of mobility
  • Lower income
  • Bereavement
  • Retirement
  • Becoming a carer
  • Other life changes such as giving up driving

Supporting a loved one going through these changes and starting a conversation about aged care can be a good way to address the topic of loneliness.

If you’re worried about the mental health of an elderly family member, visit beyondblue or call 1300 224 363.

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Belinda Peters
Belinda brings more than 17 years experience in journalism to her role as Seasons Digital Content Writer. As our blog editor, Belinda will take the confusion out of aged care with entertaining and informative stories from across the aged care industry and our Seasons communities.