Loneliness is a significant health hazard for the retirement years

Lonely senior man being alone at big house

Image: Kasia Bialasiewicz/Bigstock.com

As you prepare for your retirement, don’t forget to maintain and develop friendships, and be an active part of your community. A number of findings warn that isolation and loneliness can lead to serious health problems—physical, mental and emotional.

A January 2016 report about ageing Victorians (‘Ageing is Everyone’s Business’, available online) noted that research has made it clear that ‘socially active older people are happier and healthier than those who are not socially active’.

Older people in this research means aged 60 years and over.

Health issues caused by loneliness

The risk factor of loneliness has been found to be comparable to those of smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and obesity. One problem is that loneliness can lead to an unhealthy diet, heavy alcohol use, and physical inactivity.

Loneliness has also been linked to high blood pressure, poor sleep, and the onset of disabilities. Then there are mental health and wellbeing issues such as anger, depression, resentment, pessimism, and suicidal thoughts. Extreme loneliness can also increase the chance of premature death by 14 per cent.

This is serious.

Loneliness and the Alzheimer’s connection

A small study of 79 seniors between the ages of 65 and 90 has found that loneliness may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s. The study’s participants were asked about their levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression, and how much they mixed with others.

All participants were then given a PET scan to test the levels of amyloid in their brain. Amyloid is a protein that can signal the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The results showed that seniors with high amounts of amyloid in their brain also reported being lonely and socially isolated. Actually, they were seven-and-a-half times more likely to say they were ‘sometimes’ or ‘often’ lonely and socially isolated than those whose scans showed a low amount of amyloid.

The researchers concluded, ‘Loneliness may be one of the first symptoms of [Alzheimer’s].’

This is also serious. And serious enough for us to want to make sure we keep connections with others.

5 Things to do to avoid loneliness

There are many things you can do to avoid loneliness. Here are five suggestions for a start. You’ll probably think of other ways.

  1. Join a group. And this could be any group ranging from the local bowls club to a political organisation to a preserve-your-local-heritage group, and more. As long as you have an interest in what they’re doing, you’ll find a place with them.
  2. Volunteer. This gets you mixing with people. I have a friend who volunteers on Melbourne’s iconic steam train, Puffing Billy. He loves it and regales anyone with stories about what’s happening and the people he mixes with.
  3. Make more friends. This is not always easy—harder for some than for others—and it tends to be harder as you get older. But by striking up conversations and being there for others, friendships grow.
  4. Work part or full-time in your retirement years. Delaying retirement has an advantage of keeping connections in the workplace—with the bonus of extra income. Or perhaps you could work part-time in your workplace. Or retire and go to another part-time job that keeps you in touch with people.
  5. Keep in touch with family. Family can be friends, too. Strengthening these contacts can be helpful for you and them. This could be a time when strong bridges and satisfying relationships can be built and develop.

Of course, none of this should be or has to be saved for retirement. Preparing for retirement can include many of these kinds of connections as a head start for your retirement.

Bruce Manners, author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire.

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Category: Connecting

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