The novel coronavirus has swept the globe at a time when more people are living alone than ever before in human history. The trend became noticeable in the early twentieth century, among industrialized nations; it accelerated in the nineteen-sixties.
In the United States, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half century, according to the research aggregator Our World in Data. In 2019, twenty-eight per cent of households were single-person—up from twenty-three per cent in 1980.
Stockholm may represent the apex of this trend: in 2012, sixty per cent of households in the Swedish city had only one person. Psychologists note the difference between living alone and loneliness. Science shows us that anxiety and isolation exact a physical toll on the brain’s circuitry. They increase the vulnerability to disease—by triggering higher blood pressure and heart rates, stress hormones and inflammation—among people who might otherwise not get sick.
Prolonged loneliness can even increase mortality rates. In 2015, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Brigham Young University, published an analysis of seventy studies, involving 3.4 million people, examining the impact of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. The results were notable in light of today’s pandemic.
The review found that loneliness increased the rate of early death by twenty-six per cent; social isolation led to an increased rate of mortality of twenty-nine per cent, and living alone by thirty-two per cent—no matter the subject’s age, gender, location, or culture.
Loneliness in most older people may be fatal. A 2012 study that tracked over 6,500 elderly men and women over a seven-year period in the United Kingdom reported that the lack of social contact leads to an early death, regardless of participants’ underlying health issues. One author of the study noted that though lonely most older people die of the usual causes, isolation is one of the main risk factors that worsen pre-existing conditions.
The U.K. study is not the first of its kind, and its results indicate nothing new. When over 1,600 adults over the age of 60 in the U.S. were asked how often they felt lonely or excluded, 43% said often or some of the time. The researchers then tracked those same adults over six years, during which they noted no significant changes in feelings of loneliness. However, the adults who previously reported feeling lonely experienced a significant decline in their health and ability to function.
“What we are experiencing now is a disruption in our usual pattern. We all hope this is temporary and not something that will become a more chronic state.” But, she cautioned, the danger is that people remain isolated after the risk dissipates.
“When we get out of a habit, it’s hard to get back in,” Holt-Lunstad said. “So, just like we’re worried about an economic recession, we should worry about a social recession—a continued pattern of distancing socially, beyond the immediate pandemic, that will have broader societal effects, particularly for the vulnerable.”
Understanding the science helps. Loneliness is not just a feeling. It’s a biological warning signal to seek out other humans, much as hunger is a signal that leads a person to seek out food, or thirst is a signal to hunt for water, Holt-Lunstad said. Historically, connections have been essential for survival. During the coronavirus pandemic, the loneliness signal may increase for many—with limited ways of alleviating it.
Today, just over 34 percent of the US population is aged 50 and over, and their numbers are rising rapidly with the aging of the baby-boom generation. The oldest baby boomers hit age 50 in the mid-1990s, nearly doubling the number of people in the preretirement age group of 50–64 from 32.5 million in 1990 to 58.8 million in 2010. With the oldest boomers now crossing the 65 year-old threshold, population growth among 65–74 year olds is set to soar (Figure 4). Indeed, their numbers are projected to climb from 21.7 million in 2010 to 32.8 million in 2020 and then to 38.6 million in 2030.
In the meantime, greater longevity has already helped to expand the population aged 75 and over. The number of individuals aged 75–84 rose from 10.1 million in 1990 to 13.1 million in 2010 (a 30 percent increase), while that of individuals aged 85 and over jumped from 3.1 million to 5.5 million (a 78 percent increase). As the baby boomers ultimately fill the ranks of these older age groups, the population aged 75–84 is expected to reach 30.1 million by 2040 and that aged 85 and older expected to reach 14.1 million.
Because older age groups will be growing more rapidly than younger age groups, their share of the overall population will also increase sharply. Today, one in seven persons is at least age 65; by 2030, that share will be one in five. At the same time, one in sixteen persons is now at least age 75; by 2040, the share will be one in eight.
Until the age of 50, nearly half (47 percent) of households are single parents or couples with children at home. But by the time people reach their late 50s and the childrearing phase of life draws to a close, the share of households with children under the age of 18 living at home shrinks to just 9 percent and falls further thereafter.
In their place, the share of couples without children rises to about half (49 percent) of households in their 60s, while the share of single-person households increases to fully 33 percent. Indeed, the greatest shift in household types that occurs after the age of 50 is the steady increase in individuals living alone.
By age 80, three out of five households consist of a single person. Given their typically longer lifespans, women make up nearly threequarters of this group. Meanwhile, modest shares of older adult households include extended family members, ranging from about 16 percent of households in their 50s to about 11 percent of those in their 80s.
According to Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) projections, the number of people over the age of 75 living alone will nearly double from 6.9 million in 2015 to 13.4 million in 2035. These households may face a number of challenges to their well-being. Many are likely to have limited financial resources to draw upon to meet their housing costs and other basic needs. If they are homeowners, the responsibility of upkeep can also be a burden. And declines in physical or mental capacities may lead to a need for outside help performing day-to-day activities.
While living alone does not inevitably lead to social isolation, it can certainly be a contributing factor. Another factor to consider is how often most older people engage in social activities.
Statistics Canada reports that 80% of Canadian most older people participate in one or more social activities per month, which leaves out the remaining one-fifth of most older people.
Social contacts tend to decrease as we age for reasons such as retirement, the death of friends and family, or lack of mobility. Regardless of the causes of senior isolation, the consequences can be alarming and detrimental. Additionally, perceived social isolation — the feeling that you are lonely — is a struggle for many older people. Fortunately, research regarding the risks, causes, and prevention of loneliness in most older people have provided insight on this matter for the past couple of decades.
Los Angeles is a huge city, with a metropolitan area covering a massive 4,850 square miles and a wider combined statistical area of 33,954 square miles. These metrics make L.A. the largest metropolitan region in the United States by land area. California’s senior population also happens to be the fastest-growing population among the states. The census predicts that the number of Californians aged 65 and older is anticipated to climb by 2.1 million by 2026, which is 840 times the rate of growth of Californians younger than 25. A vast majority of those older adults live in Los Angeles.
Of the four million residents in Los Angeles, approximately 395,000 are 65 years of age or older. By 2025, that number will be more than half a million. In another decade, the senior population will account for one-quarter of L.A. residents. Though it is difficult to say how many of those most older people are lonely, a Think Healthy LA survey reveals that as few as 6.4% to as many as 59.6% of most older people live alone throughout the Los Angeles neighborhoods. The median number of senior individuals who live alone is 18.3%. Approximately one-third of all most older people living alone reportedly live in poverty, have poor health or both.
Nearly 25% of adults who reported feeling lonely also reported that they had trouble carrying out activities of daily living. Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) include bathing, dressing, grooming, eating and getting in and out of bed. Only 12.5% of adults who were not lonely reported such declines.5 An even earlier study from 1992 followed 2,000 heart patients. This study revealed that relative mortality rates more than tripled among adults who had neither a confidant nor partner, compared to those who had one, the other, or both.
But what is the connection between loneliness, isolation and premature death? Research suggests that isolation and loneliness are linked to high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, a weakened immune system, depression, anxiety, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease and early death.
The director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and author of the 2012 U.K. study suggests that the connection may have something to do with poor lifestyle choices. Those who are lonely are more likely to smoke and eat poorly. As such, lonely people are prone to inactivity, which further exacerbates health problems. Conversely, those who partake in meaningful, productive activities with others are generally happier, have a sense of purpose and tend to live longer. Social activities appear to play a vital role in both mental and physical health and well-being.
A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that feeling lonely does not correlate to living alone. 43% of all most older people surveyed reported that they felt lonely, yet only 18% of those most older people lived alone. The remaining 25% lived in nursing homes or received in-home care.
Loneliness in nursing homes appears to be strikingly common. A 2011 study of 2,072 nursing home residents in Helsinki, Finland, showed that 9% of nursing home residents suffered from chronic loneliness. Similarly, more than one-quarter experienced loneliness “sometimes.” Those who reported any feelings of loneliness also showed signs of mobility problems, disability, poor self-rated health, cognitive impairment and depression.
According to a study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both social isolation and loneliness are associated with a higher risk of mortality in adults aged 52 and older. One possible explanation: “People who live alone or lack social contacts may be at increased risk of death if acute symptoms develop because there is less of a network of confidantes to prompt medical attention.” Researchers state that efforts to reduce isolation are the key to addressing the issue of mortality.
Researchers using data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project state that regardless of the reason behind a person’s isolation, most older people who feel lonely and isolated are more likely to report also having poor physical and/or mental health.
Dr. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist and psychologist at the University of Chicago, has been studying social isolation for 30 years. One frightening finding is that feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline. Cacioppo states “we evolved to be a social species, it’s hard-wired into our brains, and when we don’t meet that need, it can have physical and neurological effects.”
Many studies show a connection between social isolation and higher rates of elder abuse, reports the National Center on Elder Abuse. Researchers aren’t certain whether isolated adults are more likely to fall victim to abuse, or are a result of abusers attempting to isolate the elders from others to minimize risk of discovery.
LGBTQ most older people are twice as likely to live alone, according to SAGE (Services & Advocacy for GLBT Elders). Additionally, they are more likely to be single, more likely to be estranged from their biological families, and they are less likely to have children.
Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination may be major roadblocks to support LGBTQ most older people. However, there are increasingly more community groups and online resources devoted to helping these elders avoid isolation.
In the PNAS study previously mentioned, illnesses and conditions such as chronic lung disease, arthritis, impaired mobility, and depression were associated with social isolation. Ensuring adequate care for our loved ones’ illnesses can help prevent this isolation.
For homebound most older people, phone calls and visits are a critical part of connecting with loved ones. Others may find that moving to an assisted living community addresses both issues — the need for ongoing care and the desire for companionship.
Numerous studies over the past decade have shown that feeling lonely is associated with more depressive symptoms in both middle-aged and older adults. It is critical to recognize those feelings of loneliness, isolation and depression and seeking treatment. This is important whether if it is on your behalf or for the sake of a loved one.
A study in Psychology and Aging indicated a direct relationship between loneliness in older adults and increases in systolic blood pressure over the course of 4 years. These increases were independent of race, ethnicity, gender, and other possible contributing factors. Researchers suggest that the early interventions for loneliness may be key to preventing both the isolation and associated health risks.
According to the National Council on Aging, socially isolated most older people are more likely to predict their quality of life will get worse over the next five to 10 years, are more concerned about needing help from community programs as they get older, and are more likely to express concerns about aging in place. The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging says community-based programs and services are critical in helping ward off potential problems and improving the quality of life for older people.
“One in six most older people living alone in the United States faces physical, cultural, and/or geographical barriers that isolate them from their peers and communities,” reports the National Council on Aging. “This isolation can prevent them from receiving benefits and services that can improve their economic security and their ability to live healthy, independent lives.” Referring isolated older adults to senior centers, activity programs and transportation services can go a long way toward creating valuable connections and reducing isolation.
According to a report from the Children’s, Women’s and Senior Health Branch, British Columbia Ministry of Health, loneliness and social isolation are major predictors of most older people who receive home care and who live in nursing homes.
The positive angle of these findings are that using long-term health care services can in itself connect most older people with much-needed support. For most older people living in rural areas, entering a care facility may provide companionship and social contact.
Losing a spouse is an event that becomes more common as people enter older age. The loss of a spouse has been shown by numerous studies to increase most older people’ vulnerability to emotional and social isolation, says the same report from the British Columbia Ministry of Health. Besides the loneliness brought on by bereavement, the loss of a partner may also mean the loss of social interactions that were facilitated by being part of a couple. Ensuring most older people have access to family and friendship support can help alleviate this loneliness.
Having access to adequate public transportation or other senior transportation services is key to most older people’ accessing programs and resources, as well as their feelings of connectedness and independence.
According to the AARP, “life expectancy exceeds safe driving expectancy after age 70 by about six years for men and 10 years for women.” Yet, 41% of most older people do not feel that the transportation support in their community is adequate, says the NCOA.
Whether you are caring for a parent, spouse or other relative, being a family caregiver is an enormous responsibility. When that person has Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or a physical impairment, the caregiver may feel even less able to set aside their caregiving duties to attend social events that they previously enjoyed. This can trigger loneliness and depression. Seeking support, caring for yourself, and even looking for temporary respite care can help ward off caregiver loneliness and restore your sense of connection.
Studies have found that loneliness tends to spread from person to person due to negative social interactions and other factors. In other words, when one person is lonely, that loneliness is more likely to spread to friends or contacts of the lonely individual. Additionally, people tend to further isolate others who are lonely because we have evolved to avoid threats to our social cohesion.
Simply telling most older people to engage in more social activities may not be enough. Considering our loved ones’ needs as individuals is a valuable first step to figuring out how to prevent or combat isolation.
A study using data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) found that people who are socially isolated or lonely are also more likely to report risky health behaviors such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, and smoking. Conversely, social support can help encourage most older people to eat well, exercise, and live healthy lifestyles.
Living in a community situation can be an effective barrier to loneliness because most senior communities specifically promote wellness through diet and exercise programs.
We all know that volunteering is a rewarding activity, and most older people have a unique skill set and life experiences to contribute to their communities. Volunteering can also boost longevity and contribute to mental health and well-being. Additionally, volunteering ensures that most older people have a source of social connection. There are plenty of opportunities tailor-made for most older people interested in volunteering.
A review of studies looking at various types of interventions on senior loneliness found that the most effective programs for combating isolation had an educational or training component. For instance, classes on health-related topics, computer training, or exercise classes are all programs to combat senior loneliness.
Even though modern technology provides us with numerous ways to keep in touch, sometimes the result is that we feel lonelier than ever. Health Quality Ontario states that the key to finding technological interventions that really do help is to match those interventions to the specific needs of individual most older people.
Phone contact and Web-based support programs may provide a lifeline.
Senior isolation is neither inevitable nor irreversible. Having regular contact with a friendly counselor will provide the oversight necessary to prevent neglect and give the individual positive reinforcement and support.