Well, since my baby left me / Well, I found a new place to dwell / Well, it’s down at the end of Lonely Street / At Heartbreak Hotel / Where I’ll be, I’ll be so lonely, baby / Well, I’m so lonely – I’ll be so lonely, I could die.
It’s doubtful that many people realize how accurate the lyrics about loneliness in Elvis’ 1972 hit, “Heartbreak Hotel”, is. Sadly, ‘so lonely I could die’ is not just a poetic reference in a soulful rock ballad; it’s a devastating truth for millions of real people.
Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who identify as lonely has doubled from 20% percent to 40%. And half of all people 65 and older consider television their main source of company. Results from the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which asks questions like: ‘How often do you feel close to people?’ show that as many as 30% of the US population don’t feel close to anyone.
However, even with those staggering statistics, loneliness is not widely accepted as a serious issue. It’s more often than not thought to be a dismissible emotional state. Not only that, but publicly acknowledging and declaring loneliness has such a negative stigma in society that most afflicted people don’t disclose or talk about it. Admitting loneliness can add to the already discouraging feelings of failure, isolation, rejection, or lack of intimacy which makes it especially hard to ask for help.
Special occasions – like holidays – can worsen the symptoms. For example, during the Christmas season, songs, movies, or discussions about cheer, family, and togetherness may amplify feelings of aloneness. During research studies, many people admit to feeling more depressed, lonelier, or less satisfied with life in general during the holidays.
As if that weren’t enough, loneliness can be the cause of some pretty alarming health issues:
- Real or perceived loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults
Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, who has been studying social isolation for over three decades found that loneliness has been linked to quicker cognitive decline.“We evolved to be a social species,” says Dr. Cacioppo. “It’s hard-wired into our brains, and when we don’t meet that need, it can have physical and neurological effects
- Loneliness is thought to cause or accelerate disease
Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a renowned therapist, wrote a scientific research essay in 1959 called “On Loneliness”. This document sparked additional loneliness research – not via psychoanalysis, but biological analysis; literally, the effects loneliness had on cells and nerves. The findings of the psychobiological research showed that loneliness can be attributed to a variety of ailments both mental and physical.The way it works physically is feelings of loneliness send misleading hormonal signals. These signals trigger a “rewiring” of the molecules on genes that govern their behavior. Long term, loneliness can cause or exacerbate diseases like Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer (tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people).
- Lack of social support due to loneliness accelerates physical and mental decline
Other researchers conclude that people who are lonely get sicker than those who aren’t lonely simply because they lack social support. Without a network of people to take care of them, or even a single caregiver, they decline more quickly.
- Caregivers for the lonely may also be at risk
Due to the immense responsibility associated with caring for a lonely family member – whether that be a parent, spouse, sibling, or other relative – caregivers may be forced, or feel the need to abandon social activities they previously enjoyed.The added stress may cause the caregiver to engage in more unhealthy behaviors such as poor nutrition, foregoing exercise, or smoking. The likelihood is greater if the person they’re caring for is already engaging in these behaviors.
- Rejection can mimic painFeelings of loneliness are typically associated with people who feel like an outsider in some way – either due to age, economic status, lack of social acceptance, or any other factor that marks them as different. Surveys confirm that people who feel rejected in some way are more likely to feel lonely than those who don’t.Interestingly, a famous experiment led by Naomi Eisenberger, a social psychologist at UCLA, explains why the brain registers rejection as pain.Using a multiplayer online game called “Cyberball” and magnetic resonance imaging scans, Eisenberger was able to show that when a player was snubbed during the game, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex area of their brain lit up. This part of the brain also lights up when the body experiences physical pain.What’s actually being registered is the distress of emotional pain or the “affective component” of pain, according to Eisenberger.
To eliminate or alleviate these issues, research confirms that human connection is the foundation of human well-being.
Simply telling seniors experiencing loneliness to engage in more social activities may not be the answer. Empathy and personalizing their needs is a more effective approach. Additionally, social support – either through services or technology – can also help seniors live healthier lifestyles both emotionally and physically.
According to Health Quality Ontario, an agency that monitors and reports on the quality of health care provided in Ontario, the key to finding technological solutions that really do help, is matching those interventions to the specific needs of individual seniors.
Dr. Paul Tang, of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, is the founder of LinkAges, an online service exchange program that allows members to post something they want help with. Other members can then volunteer to fill those needs.
“We in the medical community have to ask ourselves, ‘are we controlling blood pressure or improving health and well-being?’ says Dr. Tang. “I think you have to do the latter to do the former.”
Cuida Health is a leader in adapting voice-first technology for seniors. Our mission is to help older adults avoid the isolating effects of aging in order to live active and independent lives. We specialize in creating conversational personalities for consumer voice-assisted devices that help seniors expand connections with friends and family, stay socially active and focus on both their emotional and physical health.