Loneliness and the elderly in the time of coronavirus

The spectre of loneliness is haunting older people forced to shield due to COVID-19.

Families have been torn apart due to social distancing – and it’s caused a great deal of emotional distress.

A survey for Gransnet of 1,396 users, in June, found 41 per cent of respondents found that lockdown restrictions on meeting up with family members has left them feeling both lonely and less close to their grandchildren, with 28 per cent even saying they are worried about being able to rebuild the relationship once social distancing measures are eased further.

Worryingly, research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.

People who find themselves unexpectedly alone are at particular risk

Engaging in meaningful, productive activities with others is linked to living longer. Research by John T. Cacioppo, Ph.D., former director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago showed that being alone and loneliness are different but related. 

Social isolation is the objective physical separation from other people (living alone), while loneliness is the subjective distressed feeling of being alone or separated. 

It’s believed that loneliness increases inflammation, increasing the risk of chronic diseases.

Dr. Cole, director of the Social Genomics Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, commented: “The biology of loneliness can accelerate the build-up of plaque in arteries, help cancer cells grow and spread, and promote inflammation in the brain leading to Alzheimer’s disease. Loneliness promotes several different types of wear and tear on the body.

Keeping happy and keeping well are very much interconnected. Research carried out by University College London (UCL) has revealed that older people who enjoy life show slower signs of physical decline as they age. The study included 3199 men and women aged 60 years or over living in England and looked at the link between positive well-being and physical health. The research took place over a period of eight years.

Dr Andrew Steptoe who led the study said: "Our results provide further evidence that enjoyment of life is relevant to the future disability and mobility of older people."

So what can be done to make older people happier and healthier?

  • A recent study published by Nature Neuroscience found that people feel happier when they have more variety in their daily routines - when they go to novel places and have a wider array of experiences.
  • Exercise – even gentle stretches or a stroll, whatever the individual is able to do, will release feel-good hormones known as endorphins inducing a good mood.
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and enough protein and good fats.
  • Keep in touch with family. One study on centenarians showed that longevity was linked when those took care of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and volunteering

Coronavirus has meant that these happiness-boosters linked with sociability and connectivity are at risk if we have a second wave of COVID-19.

If you have elderly loved ones who live far away, now might be the time to reassess living arrangements.

Annabel James founder of Agespace.org commented: ‘Now is the time, along with millions of families and organisations around the UK, to have the difficult conversations and make decisions about the future of elderly care.’

A form of dementia common among older people. Full medical glossary
A fluid that transports oxygen and other substances through the body, made up of blood cells suspended in a liquid. Full medical glossary
Abnormal, uncontrolled cell division resulting in a malignant tumour that may invade surrounding tissues or spread to distant parts of the body. Full medical glossary
The basic unit of all living organisms. Full medical glossary
A disease of long duration generally involving slow changes. Full medical glossary
Decline in mental capacity, brain functioning and memory that affects day-to-day living. Full medical glossary
Feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a loss of interest in life, combined with a sense of reduced emotional well-being Full medical glossary
One of the three main food constituents (with carbohydrate and protein), and the main form in which energy is stored in the body. Full medical glossary
An organ with the ability to make and secrete certain fluids. Full medical glossary
A substance produced by a gland in one part of the body and carried by the blood to the organs or tissues where it has an effect. Full medical glossary
The organs specialised to fight infection. Full medical glossary
The body’s response to injury. Full medical glossary
Excess accumulation of fat in the body. Full medical glossary
Any flat, raised patch; for example, a raised patch on the skin, fatty deposit in the inner wall of an artery, or layer over the surface of a tooth. Full medical glossary
Compounds that form the structure of muscles and other tissues in the body, as well as comprising enzymes and hormones. Full medical glossary
Relating to injury or concern. Full medical glossary
A microbe that is only able to multiply within living cells. Full medical glossary