Loneliness is coming out of the shadows and, apparently, it’s just in time. According to some disturbing research, the next public health hazard could be social isolation. One study revealed that chronic loneliness increases your chance of dying by a staggering 26 per cent!
We’ve all been there. Whether it was because we moved away from family and friends to go to college or to take a job in a new city, we took an extended trip away from home, were house-bound due to illness, or just spent too much time looking at others’ social media lives; we’ve all experienced times in our lives when we felt isolated or lonely.
Fortunately, for most of us, it was just a temporary situation and we didn’t give it much thought once it passed. But as we age, there is an increased likelihood of chronic loneliness and isolation, so we might want to start paying more attention.
A recent UCLA study explains why loneliness can be so lethal. We’ve known for some time that lonely people are at greater risk for illness (e.g. heart attacks, some types of cancer, Alzheimer’s). Turns out, our immune system changes when we experience loneliness. The genes responsible for inflammation get more active and the genes that produce antibodies to fight infection go dormant. And that effect is long-lasting.
Lonely people are dying, they’re less healthy, and they are costing our society more. – Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson, University of Georgia, Institute of Gerontology
As more and more people experience this process, researchers are predicting that loneliness and social isolation could be more deadly to our aging population than smoking, obesity and diabetes.
And more of us are experiencing it at a younger age. A Sightlines longevity study that compares how things are changing from generation to generation, indicates loneliness and isolation are more prevalent among baby boomers than previous generations. As a group, we are less connected to our families, friends and communities.
According to a report commissioned by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the most prominent emerging issue older adults are facing is finding a means to become, or remain, socially included and connected to their community.
I have to admit, these last studies surprised me. But I can see how it happens. Technology has allowed us to be connected to our work virtually 24/7, so it has taken a more dominant role in our lives. We are less likely to be involved in the community, visit with friends, or even have time for loved ones if we are spending more hours of each day working.
After you retire, loneliness can sneak up on you. At first, you might be okay with or even enjoy having time to yourself. Getting out of the rat race with its daily commutes, packed schedules of back-to-back meetings and social commitments, and never feeling you have enough time to fit everything in, can actually be a relief. Gaining control of one’s time is what many people look forward to the most when they leave the workforce.
But being less socially active, even for a little while, can lead to further isolation. It becomes easier to not make the effort to reach out to others and we start to lose our social connections.
While its prevalence is only begun to be measured, it’s estimated that up to 20 per cent of older adults in Canada, up to 15 per cent in the UK, and 60 million older Americans experience a high level of loneliness and social isolation. Definitely an issue that needs to be addressed. The UK has launched a national Campaign to End Loneliness with resources and programs to combat the issue. With a growing number of its population over the age of 60, Canada needs to follow suit.
There are as many reasons for loneliness as there are ways to combat it. Like most things in retirement, it is not a one-size fits all. What are you doing to ensure that you remain socially connected to your family, friends and community as you age? Your life could depend on it.
We offer a variety of coaching programs and workshops for individuals, couples and groups to help you assess your readiness to retire and how you can create a smooth transition from the workforce or enhance your current retirement lifestyle.