Ageing Well Health & Wellness

Never Let Yourself Get Too Lonely

August 15, 2019
How loneliness affects ageing well

How loneliness affects ageing well

Loneliness can be a huge problem for some especially after retirement when we can lose touch with friends and work colleagues. It is a huge adjustment from working full time surrounded by people to days that perhaps have no social connection or purpose.

Staying connected is a huge factor in ageing well and living a fulfilled and contented life. It is a conundrum because I know myself that I value time alone but that is totally different to being lonely. Taking time out for ourselves and our own needs and desires is important for our health and well being. However, isolation and loneliness is detrimental to ageing well.

I was delighted when my next guest, Donna from Retirement Reflections, decided her topic for Ageing Well in August would be about the affect of loneliness and isolation in retirement.

Donna has found some sobering results of studies and also provides us with ways we can avoid becoming too isolated. Don’t forget to connect with the lovely Donna through her website and social media links at the end of this post.

Never Let Yourself Get Too Lonely

I’m a recovering research nerd. Still, when Sue asked if I would write a Guest Post on Positive Aging for her Ageing Well in August series, I headed straight to the results of recent studies (just as I had done when previously researching this topic earlier in my retirement).

Again, I found often-espoused tips that are commonly associated with healthy aging and longevity (think: diet, exercise, and stress reduction). Most significantly, I once again found rigorous longitudinal studies that have identified loneliness and social isolation as the single most detrimental factor against longevity and aging well. Researchers have linked loneliness to a wide range of devastating illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

Their conclusions associate social isolation with a reduction in life span similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” (SourceSource)

So, what can we do about it?

Studies from Blue Zones (where residents typically live far past the average life expectancy) suggest that close family relationships, intersecting daily with other community members, laughing regularly with friends, and celebrating elders, are significant contributors to the longevity of residents.

Adding to this, researchers from Indiana and Harvard Universities studied 8,000 older adults. They overwhelmingly found that those who volunteered aged better (including having fewer hospital stays) than those who didn’t.

Back to the Blue Zone Studies: In Sardinia, research suggests that a lean, plant-based diet, walking five or more miles a day, a daily glass of red wine and regularly drinking goat’s milk may also add to the long life of villagers. On top of this, genetics were factored in as contributing up to 25% of life expectancy. This reinforces the concept that a variety of factors come into play regarding our mortality. However, when contributing factors were studied in isolation, loneliness repeatedly topped the list as having the most impact on health, well-being, and life span. No longer can social isolation be overlooked or downplayed.

Going forward, researchers and psychologists suggest: Increase your awareness, create a plan, build a support system (for yourself as well as for friends and family).

Reach out, get out of the house, put down your devices (research does not support longevity benefits from texting others!). Nurture your friendships and strive to increase your face-to-face conversations. Even the smallest steps in this direction are significant steps toward positive aging! (SourceSource)

How loneliness affects ageing well

Meet Donna

Donna lived and worked in Beijing, China for fourteen years. Leaving international life behind, she and her husband retired to Vancouver Island, Canada, in June 2015. To document this transition, Donna initiated ‘Retirement Reflections’. Her favourite part of blogging is the interaction with others. Read more About Donna here  You can connect with her in the comment section below, or via the following social media sites. She would love to hear from you.

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  • Reply Natalie August 15, 2019 at 04:29

    Hi Donna – Lovely to see you here with research information and great suggestions to combat isolation and loneliness. I think it’s also important for each person in a couple situation to have friends of their own, not just couple friends. Thank you to Sue for featuring Donna. Hope to see you both in BC next month.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:15

      Hi, Natalie – You make an excellent point about couples also needing to have their own individual friends (and their own individual time alone). I look forward to seeing both you and Sue VERY SOON! 🙂

  • Reply Dawn in Michigan August 15, 2019 at 04:30

    “Increase your face to face interactions” would help solve a lit of the ills of our worlds.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:19

      Hi, Dawn – I totally agree with you on this. Although we cannot magically change the world overnight, we can each take small, but steady steps toward this in our own lives.

  • Reply Kathy @ SMART Living August 15, 2019 at 04:33

    Hi Donna! Such an important post! The research definitely supports the idea that we need each other–especially as we age! Your statistics are wonderful because they pound home that fact in undeniable ways. And although people who have great genetics like to claim that as a saving grace, only 25% of our ability to age in a positive way can be attributed to that. Of that I am extremely grateful because my family has a history of passing on in their mid-70s and I’m shooting for much longer. Even my father, who didn’t take that great of care of himself at all, lived to be 80 and I am certain it had to do with his extremely strong social connections. May we all take note and do what it takes to find more and more close relationships! ~Kathy

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:26

      Hi, Kathy – I had first stumbled onto this topic when writing a Guest Post for you two years ago. Still, I was astounded to find this topic to again be cited by researchers as the number one contributor to positive aging. Brand new studies are reinforcing the message of the 2017 reviews that I had previously read. As you say, this really “pounds home the facts” in undeniable ways.

  • Reply Joanne Seisco August 15, 2019 at 05:09

    The older I get the more I appreciate the connection with others. I work hard to stay active – both physically and socially. For me it’s not something that ‘just happens’. It requires thought and effort … but then again, everything in life that’s worthwhile does.

    Natalie made a great point when she said it was important for couples to have a life outside of their relationship … interests, friends, activities.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:33

      Hi, Joanne – It is so true that everything in life that is worthwhile requires thought and effort. Even things that once may have come more easily may now demand work and planning. I agree that not taking things for granted is another requirement for Aging Well. 🙂

  • Reply Ally Bean August 15, 2019 at 05:20

    An interesting topic that seems more and more important as the Boomers head into retirement. I’m an introvert so the idea of not seeing people face-to-face seems great to me, but I take the point of this post. Alone is ok, lonely is not.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:36

      Hi, Ally – These are very wise words, and a great summary. Thank you for adding this!

  • Reply Erica/Erika August 15, 2019 at 05:45

    Great information, Donna. This is the first time I have read the comparison of social isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. I agree and relate to some of the above comments. Joanne mentioned how she makes a point to stay physically and socially active. It is easier to stay home and not interact with others. It is better for us and we feel better when we do engage with others. I also like how Ally separated the words “alone” and “lonely.”

    Thank you for doing the research and writing this post, Donna. Thank you to Sue for always a great blog site:)

  • Reply Kate August 15, 2019 at 05:54

    Interaction is definitely important!

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:46

      Hi, Kate – It truly is. The good news is that we don’t all need to turn into extroverts. Simply having a regular routine of basic interactions within our community can make a HUGE difference to our health, positive aging and longevity.

  • Reply Pamela August 15, 2019 at 06:52

    I’m ashamed to admit that I never knew that loneliness was such a problem with the elderly (and those retiring and aging). This post opened my eyes. I know that when my dad was ill and lived by himself in a small apartment (I lived 7 hours away) he so looked forward to the Meals on Wheels program. I think less for the food, and more for the social interaction. At some point in my life, I’d like to volunteer with this amazing organization.
    I have a number of friends who have retired. Those who are doing well walk/run/bike/dance at least 4 times a week, volunteer, help out with grandchildren. In other words, they are very active. Those friends who are bored and stay home reading three different newspapers a day – those I worry about.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 13:53

      Hi, Pam – I agree with you that the Meals on Wheels Program very likely provided a double benefit for your dad, with the social integration piece being very important. In a study of patients who lived alone and had frequent Emergency Room visits, it was found that when a hospital worker began to phone these patients regularly, the amount of their ER visits decreased. Very interesting findings!

  • Reply Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged August 15, 2019 at 07:41

    Loneliness in retirement can be devastating. Modern technologies make it easy to isolate ourselves by getting our entertainment and social interaction from a screen. Friends can be harder to make as we age and no longer have those natural connections (kids, work, etc.) that make socializing easier. Add the death or disability of a partner and personal isolation can become a dangerously slippery slope. All the usual recommendations still apply (hobbies, activities, volunteer work – anything that brings you in contact with others), but getting motivated can be tough and self-doubt can eat away at your confidence. I encourage anyone who suspects that an acquaintance, family member, or neighbor may be experiencing loneliness, to reach out. I bet they will be grateful that you did… and you may find yourself a new friend!

  • Reply Terri Webster Schrandt August 15, 2019 at 07:44

    Donna, you bring up such an important topic! Although not totally retired, I feel a little isolated in summer since I am not teaching and home by myself most of the day. I know the type of isolation you describe is more critical. I’ve seen this with my own eyes, with friends my age who are taking care of elderly parents, who end up both isolated. Although hubby and I aren’t isolated where we live, we have very few family members near us. We talk more every day of moving to Washington state in the Spokane area where most of hubby’s family lives. I’ve got no problem with that idea since houses are cheaper and lots are bigger. We’re talking three year plan for moving on! Thanks for hosting Donna today, Sue!

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:06

      HI, Terri – You are a wonderful, active model of confronting and preventing loneliness. You have identified when you are feeling isolated, you have openly discussed this with your husband, you have proactively made a plan for the future within a specific time frame. I greatly appreciate you sharing this with us.

  • Reply Jill Weatherholt August 15, 2019 at 07:59

    Not only are you adorable, but you’re an excellent researcher, Donna. Thank you for this important information. I like how you distinguish between being alone and being lonely. People who deal with loneliness can be in a crowded room, yet still feel alone. It’s heartbreaking. Thanks for hosting Donna today, Sue!

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:12

      HI, Jill – Your comments always make me smile. I believe that the quality of our connections also makes a huge impact on how we feeling about ourselves. As you wisely noted, we can feel lonely in a crowded room…or feel connected reading this kind comment! 🙂

  • Reply Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter August 15, 2019 at 08:07

    Donna, you have just given me permission to up my red wine consumption! Flippancy aside, I agree with your premise entirely. The balance between alone / lonely needs to be worked at to get the balance right. Janis is right that looking out for people who don’t have that balance and reaching out to them is so important.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:14

      Hi, Anabel – I agree that the alone/lonely balance can be a difficult one, and is different for each of us. Drinking red wine with friends sounds like a great win-win! 🙂

  • Reply Joanne Tracey August 15, 2019 at 08:28

    Yes, there’s a difference between being alone and being lonely. That research about comparing social isolation to 15 cigarettes a day was a real eye-opener. Thanks for such an important post.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:16

      Thanks, Jo – I had read studies on this topic before, and still the current research surprised me. I listed additional links to the “smoking-social isolation” studies in my reply to Erica if you would like to check this out further.

  • Reply Lisa Dorenfest August 15, 2019 at 08:46

    Love the recommendation to volunteer. As peers may be disappering and family busy with their everyday, volunteering is a great way to forge new relationships. The red wine helps too 😉

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:19

      Hi, Lisa – My husband and I are regular volunteers at our local animal shelter. This comes with a surprising amount of human interaction. We always say that we are the big winners in these weekly sessions. Hopefully, they are a good win-win!

  • Reply Clare Pooley August 15, 2019 at 09:20

    Excellent post, Donna! Like Ally Bean, I am an introvert and hate social occasions but am aware that alone and lonely are two different things. I am keeping active in my local church – going to meetings, taking services, attending and helping at all the fund-raising activities. I also care for my mother who is very isolated but baulks at joining anything and really dislikes having non-family visitors! I have my work cut out for me there because I really sympathise with her but I also see how lonely she must get.
    Thanks for hosting Donna, Sue!

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:23

      Hi, Clare – From what you have listed, you have tons of regular social connections built into your weeks. This is exactly the kind of social integration that research so highly supports.

  • Reply Barbara Vitelli August 15, 2019 at 10:35

    Hi, this is great advice – I agree that loneliness is a big problem with the elderly, and even with the newly retired because of the huge change from a work environment. I’m at the point where I can see that this is something you have to think about ahead of time. I guess the trick is to get in the habit of finding human interaction early on in the retirement stage. Volunteering is a great way to get out there.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:26

      Hi, Barbara – I completely agree in the importance of finding social interactions early in your retirement. By putting this off, we can accidently built patterns of isolation that can become harder to break. Thank you for adding this.

  • Reply Debbie Harris August 15, 2019 at 10:41

    This was a great post Donna and Sue and so very appropriate for Ageing Well in August! Since retiring I have enjoyed alone time and also social time with others. I do miss the work environment but mainly in terms of sociability. I also agree with Natalie’s comments that retired couples need to have their own friends and circles, and time away from each other. Great use of research on a very important subject, thanks for your take on this Donna 🙂

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:34

      Thanks, Debbie – I find this area of research to be fascinating, and ever-expanding. I also agree with Natalie on the importance of couples each having time with their own friends. When I did a quick search for research on this, I also found research that focuses on the importance of couples having time together with other couples. Truly, this topic of loneliness leads to endless paths of research!

  • Reply Leanne | August 15, 2019 at 12:43

    It’s so easy to become isolated once you leave the workforce. I’m noticing that there’s nothing I like better than having a whole day at home that’s people free. The secret is definitely balance, and noticing when you aren’t being social enough. Fortunately I have a few friends who I enjoy catching up with for coffee – and a husband who works from home, so loneliness hasn’t been a problem yet (although I do still miss seeing my kids as regularly as I’d like!)
    Lovely seeing you here at Sue’s Donna – I really appreciate the variety that guest posts bring with them! xx

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:39

      Hi, Leanne – I agree that balance is the key. I also agree that time with our children is the best! 🙂
      It is amazing how Sue can give us all the same topic to write on and we each produce something very different….but completely connected!

  • Reply Donna Connolly August 15, 2019 at 16:26

    HI, Sue – Thank you for inviting me to write a Guest Post for Ageing Well in August. I’ve greatly enjoyed participating in this series. I was struck by the depth of the comments and the insights that they have added. e.g.
    • Social integration, as well as friendships, take time and effort.
    • Being alone and being lonely are two very different things. Alone is ok, lonely is not.
    • Leaving the work environment often initially reduces our social interactions.
    • Modern technologies make it very easy to isolate ourselves.
    • It’s often our friends who stay at home bored that we need to worry about.
    • Caregivers should be wary of allowing themselves, and their loved one, not to end up isolated.
    • It’s important for each person in a couple situation to have some friends of their own,
    • Increasing our face to face interactions may help solve many ills of our world.
    • A proactive plan to prevent loneliness can prove to be invaluable.
    • If each of us reached out to a friend/family/neighbour who was suffering from loneliness, we could make a big difference.
    • Volunteering is a great way to forge new relationships.
    • Bottom line: we need each other!

    • Reply Sue Loncaric August 16, 2019 at 07:21

      Hi Donna as always it is a pleasure to have you as my guest and you are certainly very popular. It is always gratifying when people leave a comment not only because you connect with them but because they do provide their insights and thoughts on the topic. It certainly is a huge topic and one that perhaps should be written about often as there is so much information to be shared. Have a beautiful weekend, Donna and see you soon 🙂

  • Reply Susan Scott August 15, 2019 at 22:55

    Thanks Donna for this important post and all the comments are significant too. Like Ally Bean I’m an introvert but when I do interact with others I enjoy it. And the difference between alone and lonely is huge. Own friends, different to the husband’s ones is essential. All the points are sooo valid. There are definitely ways to avoid crippling loneliness. Thank you! Thanks too to Sue 🙂

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:42

      Thanks, Susan – I believe that balance and proactivity are the important keys in avoiding crippling loneliness. Like so many things, when left unattended, loneliness can trap us ane make it harder and harder to defeat.

  • Reply Liesbet August 15, 2019 at 23:54

    Great post! I love my alone time and in general, I’m not too fond of people. Yet, I have the most fun with friends. That’s when I laugh. That’s when I’m in a happy place. So, I totally understand the importance of being social and having connections. I also like to meet people, to communicate, and to connect with like-minded souls. It’s rewarding and inspirational. I know that sounds contradictory. I guess it would just depend on the people I meet and hang out with. 🙂

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:46

      Hi, Liesbet – I love my alone time, and my social time and find when this gets out of balance for me, I need to spend more time in the area that I have neglected. The past three months have been a HUGE social time for me. Tomorrow is my ‘ PJ Day’ — no commitments, no social engagements. I’m looking forward to it! 🙂

  • Reply Hilary August 16, 2019 at 00:05

    Hi Sue and Donna … being positive is the important thing … and working out it’s others who are more important than us … and always communicating – I’m always smiling, engaging … even if momentarily, and thinking of others; then you mention volunteering … an essential in life, particularly as we get older … and offering to help when any occasion arises; We’re lucky and we can set examples out in the real world for others … great posts, thoughts and comments from which we’ll all benefit – cheers Hilary

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 14:57

      Hi, Hilary – I am a big fan of positivity and continually seek to surround myself with positive people. When I first began researching the topic of positive aging, I came across psychologist Susan Pinker. According to her work, positivity has limited direct impact on our longevity (social integration takes the top spot in this research). This was very frustrating to me, and I’m still not totally bought in on this. Still, Susan’s Ted Talk is very worth watching.

  • Reply Marty August 16, 2019 at 00:22

    A very interesting post, Donna. I echo Ally in that I’m a bit of an introvert myself, but that’s way different than suffering from loneliness. That it can lead to so many physical ailments is quite an eye-opener. Great insight here.

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 15:00

      Hi, Marty – I too was surprised by the amount of physical (as well as mental) havoc that loneliness can wreak on us. It can be such a silent killer, with most of us looking elsewhere for the culprit!

  • Reply S.G. August 16, 2019 at 07:49

    I wrote a longer comment on Donna’s site but wanted to stop over here briefly to give support . In our technologically obsessed society, this subject matter is of vital importance not only to retirees and an aging population, but to all generations. I actually fear for the future because of what technology has done to humanity. As always, progress and technology is a two edged sword. Before we know it, we are addicted and don’t even think twice about using email or text for 99.9% of our communications. One of the worst things is how many people I see crossing a busy street in a cross walk, their faces buried in their phones, oblivious to dangers around them.

    I love my phone, too, but the other day instead of texting a relative “Happy Birthday” I picked up the phone, and we really had a heart-to-heart that would have been impossible through texting alone.

    Susan Grace

    • Reply Sue Loncaric August 16, 2019 at 08:12

      Thank you Susan for stopping by to comment and I totally agree about technology. It is a double edged sword really. I find that social media keeps me in touch with long distance friends and family, however, smartphones appear to have become another appendage which many just can’t put down. A sobering story for me was hearing that a friend of a friend was crossing the road in the CBD. She was texting or looking at her phone and was hit and killed by a bus. She was only in her early 40s and left a family much too soon. I received two thank you cards in the mail last week and it was lovely to receive something tangible rather than just a text. Have a lovely weekend and thanks again for your thoughts. xx

    • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 15:07

      Hi, Susan – Thank you for leaving such meaningful and insightful comments on both my site and Sue’s. Your thoughtfulness and support is greatly appreciated. I love how you phoned your Happy Birthday message instead of simply texting. The other day, a neighbour texted me a question. I could have texted back but popped over to her house to reply in person instead. We had an awesome chat and I believe both of us truly enjoyed the discussion!

  • Reply Donna Connolly August 16, 2019 at 15:08

    Hi, Susan – Thank you for leaving such meaningful and insightful comments on both my site and Sue’s. Your thoughtfulness and support is greatly appreciated. I love how you phoned your Happy Birthday message instead of simply texting. The other day, a neighbour texted me a question. I could have texted back but popped over to her house to reply in person instead. We had an awesome chat and I believe both of us truly enjoyed the discussion!

  • Reply Shelley Krupa August 17, 2019 at 21:05

    Thank you, Donna and Sue, this is a very important topic for all of us as we age. Close to my heart, too, is that lack of socialization relates to dementia. Exercise and socialization on a regular basis help to prevent and reduce the onset of some forms of dementia. I also agree with the sentiments stated above about how social media has worsened society. Not only are we finding so many of us stuck in our phones, but we’re also frequently and subconsciously comparing ourselves to others. Consequently, we can end up feeling like crap. Thanks for sharing this information – it is valuable to us all.

    • Reply Sue Loncaric August 18, 2019 at 18:12

      Hi Shelley thank you for taking the time to comment and yes this post has certainly resonated with many people. Whilst I use social media and feel it can be a positive experience for keeping in touch with family and friends, I also agree with you and others that it definitely has a downside. People are communicating less in person and losing that personal connection. You also make a good point about how we can feel that others are leading happier lives than us because of their posts. We need to remember that for everyone life isn’t always about rainbows and unicorns. Lovely to connect with you and thank you again for taking the time to comment. xx

  • Reply Chocoviv August 19, 2019 at 06:30

    My mom does a lot of volunteering for the younger and the elderly too:)

  • Reply Dr Sock October 13, 2019 at 09:23

    My parents, who have both passed away now, were wonderful role models for me with respect to social engagement. Both of them were very active in the community, both in formal volunteering roles (e.g., church, service clubs, seniors centre) and in informal ways. For example, my dad was running into someone downtown and always bringing them home for dinner. We often had extra guests around the table. My mom, even once confined to a scooter, never failed to bring flowers to people in the hospital every Tuesday to brighten their day. I think “doing for others” is a great way to become socially integrated and avoid loneliness.


    • Reply Sue Loncaric October 14, 2019 at 09:52

      Hi Jude, thank you for visiting. My 93 year old Mother-In-Law loves looking after everyone in her aged care facility and yet she is one of the oldest. She is very social and smiles at everyone so much so that everywhere we walk in the facility, everyone knows Luisa. xx

  • Reply Tim Davis March 11, 2021 at 03:49

    Nice article, nice info for who is suffering from anxiety and depression.

    • Reply Sue Loncaric March 18, 2021 at 10:01

      thank you Tim and have a lovely week.

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