According to findings from Age UK, there’s a growing health concern for those over 50 years of age: loneliness.
The study found older adults are at a greater risk for the negative emotion because life changes that can create isolation — such as losing a spouse and suddenly living alone, not being able to physically engage in activities or having money issues — can prevent them from doing things they like.
Those over 50 are also three times more likely to be lonely if they don’t feel like they belong in their neighbourhood.
The situation has become such a problem that the British government appointed a loneliness minister earlier this year.
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According to Professor Amil Rokach, a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychology at York University, loneliness negatively affects both our physical and mental health regardless of location. (Meaning Canadians also need to pay attention to the issue.)
The psychological effects, he explained to Global News, include cognitive decline as well as depression and social anxiety. “In the elderly, [loneliness] could hasten dementia,” Rokach said.
Research has shown loneliness may also impact mortality rates, and has even been compared to obesity and smoking cigarettes when it comes to the harmful effects it has on health. It may also alter how well someone deals with illness, and if and how they recover.
“When someone is ill, being around family and friends, [they] can remind them, ‘Don’t forget your medications,’ ‘Don’t forget exercise,'” Rokach said. “Someone who is lonely and alone, not only doesn’t have people to remind him or her, but they simply may lose interest in preserving life.”
Human beings are not programmed to live alone, said Rokach. Human interaction is as important as food and other vital resources.
When older adults reach a point in their lives where their social environments may have changed, like divorce or retirement, for example, it is even more important that they feel a sense of connectedness to combat loneliness.
“We have to feel that we are cared for, that were connected,” Rokach said. “Not only because other people can give us support, but it’s part of our being to know we are part of the group, that we’re valued and cared for.”
To combat loneliness, it’s important Canadians talk about it. Rokach said that the U.K.’s move to address the epidemic is a step in the right direction, and more nations should follow suit.
“The first step is recognizing that we’re lonely,” Rokach said. “Some people like to deny it to themselves, and if you deny it, you can’t deal with it. There’s a stigma to loneliness.”
Once we recognize that loneliness is a problem, it’s important to figure out what factors may be contributing to it. That way, Rokach said, something can be done about it.
While getting out and meeting new people or finding ways to connect with a larger community is helpful, it’s important to remember that you don’t need large amounts of friends to ward off the negative emotion.
“When you have people around you, it’s not the quantity of the people, it’s the quality of the relationships,” Rokach said.
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