Published on January 09, 2017

This is as bad for your health as obesityThis is as bad for your health as obesity

With more older Americans living alone, experts are beginning to understand some of the psychological and physical effects of a solitary lifestyle. And the news isn’t good. Researchers have concluded that the risks of loneliness and social isolation are comparable to or worse than the risks of obesity on a person’s health.

Last year, researchers at the Association for Psychological Science published the results of a meta-analysis of data from studies that included 3,407,134 participants who were followed an average of seven years.

After accounting for other factors, the likelihood of early mortality was found to be 26 percent higher for those who reported being lonely, 29 percent higher for those who reported social isolation and 32 percent higher for those living alone.

The reasons why loneliness is so damaging to body and soul can be explained by the work done by lead author Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, director of the High-Performance Electrical NeuroImaging Laboratory at The University of Chicago, and her colleagues. Their study “Toward a Neurology of Loneliness” [pdf] examines the health risks of loneliness.

They list the following physical health conditions that can result from loneliness:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol
  • Higher vascular resistance
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Decreased blood flow to the major organs
  • Immune system impairment
  • Cognitive decline
  • Increased sleep disruption

The VNA of Cape Cod Can Help

Helping clients overcome loneliness is a large part of the Private Services Division of the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. The VNA offers a variety of important services provided by homemakers and home health aides.

Homemakers do housekeeping, laundry, shopping, errands, meal preparation and drive people to their appointments. They perform the little jobs that the client can no longer do. Home health aides do all those same jobs but can also help with personal care such as bathing, hand care, foot care, mouth care and medication reminders.

They also perform another crucial service; personal contact.

“Socialization is a big part of what we do,” said Patricia Buckley Corriveau, home support supervisor for the VNA. “It’s very important. A lot of our clients are all alone all day long. Maybe their daughter calls them, but there are a lot of days when the home health aides or the homemakers are the only communication they have with other humans.”

Frailty is another devastating health problem for elders living alone and socialization can help with that issue as well. Frailty occurs when older people are undernourished, lose muscle mass from sitting too long and develop chronic inflammation.

It’s a common problem because so many of the elderly don’t eat well, said Buckley Corriveau. Add to that the hours spent in front of a television and it’s no wonder they become frail, she said.

To combat a lack of appetite in clients, many VNA homemakers bring their own lunches to work and sit down to eat with their clients. Eating is social and this encourages their clients to eat while also having a conversation.

“The homemakers do meal prep and some light housekeeping, but they also just sit and talk to the patients,” Buckley Corriveau said. “Communication is important to their mental health – talking about their families, talking about their lives, their experiences.”

A recent study done in Vienna, Austria called the “Healthy for Life” project yielded interesting results that supports how helpful homemakers can be. In the study, researchers assigned volunteers to visit frail or malnourished elders twice a week for 12 weeks. Half of the elders were given nutrition advice and strength training. The other half only received socialization and cognitive stimulation.

At the end of 12 weeks, the group that was given nutrition and exercise support improved their nutrition standing by 25 percent and reduced their level of frailty by 17 percent. But most interesting was that the group that only received social support had similar numbers (23 percent nutrition improvement and 16 percent reduction in frailty).

A press release about the study issued by the Medical University of Vienna quoted lead author Eva Lunger as emphasizing that healthy nutrition and physical activity were vital, but calling social support an essential prerequisite. Her co-author Thomas E. Dorner was even more adamant.

“An active social life and social contacts are important factors to remain autonomous for as long as possible,” Dorner stressed.

Buckley Corriveau agrees.

“Companionship is healthy,” she said. “People need human contact. A lot of our clients really look forward to the visits.”