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Loneliness & mortality in older adults: a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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The latest research suggests that between 20-40% of all older adults in Western countries feel lonely. These feelings of loneliness are associated with a number of subsequent behavioural and health problems, such as reductions in physical activity, depressive symptoms, poor functional health and impaired mental health and cognition. In fact, loneliness has been linked with increased vascular resistance, increased systolic pressure and altered immunity which could make them much more susceptible to a variety of illnesses.

With increasing evidence, one plausible mechanism through which loneliness increases the risk of mortality is the social and health behaviours. Cacioppo & Hawkley (2009) suggest that loneliness activates implicit hyper vigilance for social threat in the environment. This chronic activation can diminish executive functioning and heightened impulsivity reduces the ability of individuals to engage in health behaviours that require self-control. This means loneliness is found to be associated with a lower likelihood of physical activity participation and a faster decline in physical activity participation over a 2 year follow-up period.

Although social and health behaviours may mediate health, the effect of loneliness on mortality may be more directly explained by health as health outcomes are the more proximal predictors of mortality. The effects of emotional, physical and functional health on mortality have been well documented in the West. Loneliness affects social and health behaviours which, in turn, affects our health. So, we expect that loneliness also affects health outcomes. Loneliness has been shown to be associated with feelings of sadness, anxiety and low self-esteem which, ultimately, leads to increasingly depressive symptoms over time. Moreover, it has also been found to be negatively associated with self-rated health with lonely individuals showing higher levels of functional limitations.

Although the study focuses on the consequences of loneliness for behavioural and health outcomes, we shouldn’t forget that behaviours and health statuses can also act as risk-factors for loneliness. Social isolation means many older adults have fewer opportunities to meet people or lack sufficient resources and skills to build and maintain meaningful social connections. Both of these barriers could contribute to feelings over loneliness. Moreover, we know that poor health presents a barrier to establishing and maintaining personal relationships.

Participation in social activities, like a Move it or Lose it! class, provides the opportunity to meet people and can make people feel socially connected. Solitary leisure activity participation is often used as a coping strategy to deal with social isolation and it is suggested that constructive and enjoyable solitary activities may help alleviate loneliness by enhancing the individual’s mood and sense of control. Even better, physical exercise has been shown to improve an individual’s mood and offers opportunity for socialization, which can help combat loneliness.

To read the full report, follow the link below.

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