Tue, 13 Sep 2016 14:44:06 +0000
- In Britain and the United States about one in three people older than 65 live alone, and studies show 10% to 46% of those older than 60 are lonely.
- In 2012, about 20% of older people in Canada reported feeling lonely. But you don’t have to be old to feel isolated: in a study of 34,000 Canadian university students, almost two thirds reported feeling “very lonely” in the past 12 months.
Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco, calls the epidemic of loneliness a public health crisis. She says, “The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem. It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”
A study she conducted showed that, among adults over 60, those who reported feelings of loneliness had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death during 6 years of follow-up. This association remained significant even after taking into account people’s age, economic status, depression and other health problems.
University of Chicago neuroscience researcher John T. Cacioppo, who studies the social nature of the human brain, puts loneliness on the same instinctive level as thirst, hunger or pain – as a survival mechanism. In an interview he says:
“One of the things that surprised me was how important loneliness proved to be. It predicted morbidity. It predicted mortality. And that shocked me. When we experimentally manipulated loneliness, we found surprising changes in the “personalities” of people. There’s a lot more power to the perception of being socially isolated than any of us had thought.”
Cacioppo’s research has shown links to high blood pressure and impaired immune responses. Other research implicates loneliness in heart attacks and suicide.
Many things beside social circumstances — not having family members nearby or not having friends — contribute to the loneliness epidemic. The following two seem especially significant:
- Ethos of individualism: American culture’s emphasis placed on individualism makes “independence” the highest virtue and an excuse for not “needing” others or for not getting involved in the lives of needy people. But the reality of human life is interdependence — we need each other. In fact, a main argument for euthanasia is that people do not want to be dependent – even on their families – and this could become society’s “decent” option for lonely people.
- Decline of religion and church attendance has removed an important social as well as spiritual support for people of any age. Researchers reported from a European study last year that joining a religious organization is more beneficial to mental health than joining charity, sport, education or political groups for a sample of people over 50. Epidemiologist Dr. Mauricio Avendano, one of the authors of the report, noted:
“The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life. It is not clear to us how much this is about religion per se, or whether it may be about the sense of belonging and not being socially isolated.”
In the case of Christianity, it teaches us that even if we don’t have a loving family on earth, we have a loving Father in Heaven. Our faith also teaches us how to be loving mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, friends and even enemies, so no one should ever feel abandoned.
A personal note: I like to think that, in addition to its manifest function of informing, this blog, Fellowship of the Minds, also serves a social purpose by providing political conservatives and Christians with a sense of fellowship and camaraderie. I take some solace in knowing that FOTM did that for at least two of our faithful readers in their last years: Wild Bill Alaska and pnordman. Wild Bill, a military veteran, used to send me jokes, many of which I posted on FOTM; pnordman was a sweet and kind woman, who showered FOTM with her lavish praises and appreciation. Whereas pnordman lived with one of her sons and his family, in Wild Bill‘s case, our fellowship was particularly important because he had lived alone in a modest studio apartment — which I found out only after his passing from cancer. Their respective real names are William Barnham and Patricia Nordman. Both were true blue Christians. May they rest in peace with our Lord.
See also “Being alone is bad for our health,” Oct. 10, 2015.