The Loneliness Epidemic Among Seniors: Effects on Health & Solutions
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Loneliness is an issue that most of us periodically (or frequently) struggle with. The problem is heightened among older adults, who may lose touch with friends and loved ones over time. As we get older, it can be tough to gain new meaningful relationships and changes like retirement, the death of a spouse, and unexpected health complications that arise with age can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. A study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) showed that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, and approximately one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated.
With funding from the National Institutes on Aging, Olera, a startup focused on improving the way Americans age, set out on a quest to do something about this issue through a pilot program aimed at creating an online community of older adults focused on celebrating aging and fostering connections between group members.
This online community group primarily coordinates on Facebook and consists of over 300 older adult throughout America of an average age of 68. In this group, older adults attend and plan virtual events including book clubs and online socials. The group also intends to host in-person events in hubs where many residents reside.
Uncovering the loneliness problem
The journey to reducing loneliness among older adults began back in the Fall of 2020 when several graduate students at Texas A&M University met through a medical technology incubator focused on addressing public and healthcare issues. One of these students was TJ Falohun, a 3rd-year biomedical engineering Ph.D. student passionate about using technology to improve human health as well as Logan DuBose, a former MD/MBA student interested in primary care, and medical technology entrepreneurship. These passionate students, who went on to form Olera, were particularly interested in improving how Americans age because they all had older family members who struggled with the aging care system in the US, which is plagued with high costs and complicated logistics.
In 2021, Olera received a $2.3M grant from the National Institutes on Aging to address this very issue. With the support of experienced researchers and public health experts at Texas A&M University, such as Dr. Marcia Ory, a world-class researcher and renowned gerontologist, the team immediately set to work in a multi-phase study to improve aging in America.
The first phase of the project involved directly speaking to family caregivers of older adults in need of care. Through a series of video calls, the research team, based in Texas A&M University, met with family caregivers from Houston Texas and identified three major challenges families face when dealing with senior care these include:
- The inability to pay for senior care
- Difficulty with care coordination
- Mental and emotional hardship due to isolation associated with aging and caregiving
Although not the focus of this article, the team set to work on addressing each of these issues. The challenge of mental and emotional isolation was especially resonant with the team, who knew firsthand, the power of community towards solving a larger goal. Hence the team felt emotionally compelled to create a support system for older Americans through the community. As TJ, the founder and CEO of Olera put it:
“As humans, we evolved as hunter-gathers in the Savanna. Therefore, isolation meant death. This is partially why being lonely hurts so much emotionally. Sometimes bringing people together is all it takes.”
The impact of loneliness on older adults
Loneliness, as a concept, is more than just the state of being alone. It is a complex emotional response to a lack of companionship, a perception of social isolation where the quality of our relationships falls short of our desired companionship. This feeling has roots in our evolutionary biology; our prehistoric ancestors relied on social groups for survival. Loneliness, then, was a motivation to seek social connections, which was vital for survival.
In modern times, loneliness among older adults in America can result from diverse factors. One leading cause is social isolation due to lack of transportation, restricting individuals from meeting friends and participating in social activities. The death of loved ones and family also creates voids that become challenging to fill, leading to loneliness. Furthermore, the increasing loss of independence, as often seen in aging adults, coupled with a lack of physical contact, further intensifies this feeling of isolation.
Addressing and understanding this loneliness epidemic is crucial in order to promote healthier and happy lives for older Americans. Tackling this issue might be complex, but potential solutions exist and need to be explored further.
Physical Health Effects of Loneliness
Loneliness is not merely an emotional state; it has notable ramifications on physical health as well. For seniors, loneliness has been linked to a range of health issues heightening medical concerns in their already vulnerable state.
Loneliness is linked to detrimental health risks such as heart disease. Studies reveal that feelings of severe loneliness increase the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. It's not just the heart that gets affected, loneliness also plays havoc on the immune system. It can trigger inflammation, lower immunity, and increase the likelihood of an individual developing autoimmune diseases or infections. Hence, it becomes clear that ameliorating loneliness among our seniors isn't just an emotional necessity but a vital physical health measure too.
Mental Health Effects of Loneliness
Not only does loneliness plague the physical health of older adults, but it also affects their mental well-being significantly. Bluntly stated, loneliness isn't merely a transient emotion but a chronic stressor with psychological consequences.
Feelings of prolonged loneliness can manifest into serious conditions like depression and anxiety. A growing body of research points out that social isolation, implying loneliness, can enhance the risk of developing depressive symptoms in adults over 50. Simultaneously, the constant worry and fear of being alone paves a fertile ground for anxiety disorders. Building strategies for mitigating loneliness is therefore crucial not only to ensure older adults' physical well-being but also for maintaining their mental health.
A potential solution: A community of older adults
We all need someone to talk to but many do not have that system of support. With online tools like Facebook (the go-to platform for older adults), Zoom, and WhatApp, this might now be a “solvable” problem, or at least a problem is a partial solution. This is the framework in which members of the Olera team created the “Healthy Aging Community,” an online community of over 500 older adults and caregivers that describes itself as a “community of older adults to share ideas and support each other.” So far, there has been very strong interest in the Healthy Aging Community with over 100 older adults signing up every week, despite minimal marketing of the community.
Olera’s goal remains to fix America’s broken aging system. While the Healthy Aging Community may sound like a simple online group, it strives to be much more. The goal is to spark a grassroots moment led by volunteers from the community with local in-person and virtual events aimed to celebrate aging and foster connections between older adults. However, such a movement can be hard to catalyze, hence a bottoms-up approach—that aligns with the habits and desires of community members, would likely yield better results than a more top-down approach. However, the team behind the community, which consists of clinicians, technologists, and gerontologists (such as Dr. Marcia Ory) plans to apply a blend of evidence-based research and entrepreneurial practicality to scaling the community.