The Health Challenges of Loneliness and Isolation — And How to Get Help

A older man sitting alone on a bench. Loneliness and social isolation can lead to real health issues.

Social isolation and loneliness are known to increase as we age and are often spoken about interchangeably. But they are not the same and far from nuanced in their differences. Loneliness is psychologically defined as the feeling of being alone, regardless of how much social contact you have — more specifically as “a distressing feeling that accompanies the perception that one’s social needs are not being met by the quantity or especially the quality of one’s social relationships.”

Social isolation is defined as a quantitative lack of social connections — people who are socially isolated do not have many connections with other people. The two are clearly connected, however, as social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness, though many people can feel lonely even when they are socially active and connected.

Separate and together, loneliness and social isolation are serious health risks and even more so in older adults where loneliness and isolation can result in increased risk for severe and sometimes life-threatening medical conditions — including almost a 50% increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) reports that more than a third of adults over 45 feel lonely, and a fourth of those over 65 consider themselves socially isolated and at an increased risk of loneliness due to a combination of loss of family and friends, chronic illness, hearing loss and living alone.

Additionally, studies confirm that:

  • Loneliness leads to higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide.
  • Social isolation and loneliness are inherent in a 32% increase in the risk of suffering a stroke and 29% increase in the risk of heart disease.
  • Heart failure patients experiencing loneliness face nearly 4 times increased risk of premature death, a 57% increased likelihood of emergency room visits and 68% increased risk of hospitalization.
  • Social isolation severely increases the risk of premature death from any cause, rivaling the risks of physical inactivity, obesity and smoking.

We are social creatures by nature and staying socially connected with high-quality relationships (quality over quantity) has been medically proven to help us live longer, healthier lives.

  • How do you solve loneliness and social isolation? There is no instant cure for it, psychologists say, but there are some simple steps you can take to address loneliness. While many normal activities that can help reduce loneliness may be a challenge during the pandemic — there are still good ways to make connections that can help.
  • Have more, frequent virtual engagements with friends. Don’t just like their photo on Facebook; pick up the phone and call or have a video chat.
  • Create a routine to check in with friends via phone, online or in person.
  • Start a new hobby or join a group.
  • Take the focus off your loneliness by learning something new or doing more things you enjoy. If you like walking in the park, do it more often.
  • Take a class -- online or in person. Both can help you meet new people and learn new things. Classes can take your mind off loneliness.
  • Volunteer. This can get you out of the house and introduce you to new people. Sites like Volunteer Match can help you get started.

You should also talk to your primary care provider if you’re feeling lonely. They can help you find professional help if necessary.

The following are also good resources that may help:

National Council on Aging

National Institute on Aging (NIA)

Area Agencies on Aging (AAA)


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