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new national campaign rolling out on Wednesday aims to raise awareness of a hidden but devastating complication of aging: loneliness.

Tens of millions of adults are chronically lonely. And a growing body of research has linked that isolation to disability, cognitive decline, and early death.

The first-of-its kind campaign, organized by the AARP Foundation and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, aims to help seniors assess their social connectedness and suggest practical ways they can forge bonds with other people.

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“This is a public health issue of growing concern,” said Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of the AARP Foundation.

Addressing stigma will be a priority. “Who wants to admit that, ‘I’m isolated and I’m lonely?’” said Dallas Jamison, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. “It’s a source of shame and embarrassment.”

Her organization represents 622 agencies across the country that provide meals, transportation, in-home help, and other support to seniors. They’ll take the lead in identifying older adults who are isolated and linking them to resources, in part through the federal government’s Eldercare Locator. The campaign will also encourage families to talk about these issues during the holidays.

These efforts come as research highlights the physical and emotional toll of isolation in later life.

A seminal study of more than 1,600 seniors age 60 and older found that lonely people were far more likely have difficulties with walking, bathing, dressing, and climbing stairs than those who were not. They were also 45 percent more likely to die during the six years that researchers tracked them, from 2002 to 2008.

Some 43 percent of seniors interviewed for that study said they were lonely — a subjective feeling of not being meaningfully connected to other people. Based on a separate analysis, AARP estimates that 42.6 million adults age 45 and older are chronically lonely.

That feeling of isolation sounds an “I’m not safe; all is not well” alarm in seniors, raising blood pressure, sparking inflammation, inspiring stress, and interfering with the immune system’s response.

“If you’re lonely, you feel there aren’t adequate people around to support you and that means you have to surveil your environment continuously for every kind of threat,” said Linda Waite, director of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project and a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

“This consumes cognitive, physical, and psychological resources,” Waite said, “and makes it harder for you to do other things that might be beneficial to your health.”

Social isolation may mean that you rarely get out of the house and lack a support system of people who will notice when you’re feeling sick, bring over chicken soup, go out and get a decongestant, or take you to the doctor. About one in five seniors reports being isolated, Jamison said.

Still another line of research suggests that loneliness and isolation doubles the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in older adults by inducing changes in the brain that are not yet well understood.

“Humans evolved to live in social groups, and we’re most comfortable when we feel part of a group — more relaxed, happier, with lower blood pressure and cortisol levels,” Waite said.

Along with the coming campaign, the AARP Foundation plans an initiative called Connect2Affect that will highlight research on loneliness and innovative attempts to address the issue.

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  • I’m afraid that I fall in the catagory of being lonely. I find the world to be disinteresting and I do not have the interests and desires that I used to have.
    Help please

  • I am 69 yrs old and have hearing loss. We belong to a HLAA a hearing support group. I hope any initiative to help seniors would address and take into consideration the added burden that hearing loss creates to increase isolation. It’s the biggest disability because I feel more isolated and depressed when I’m in a group and everyone is talking but I can’t hear them. One on one works better for those of us with hearing loss. This disability will only increase in the population as seniors age.

    • I agree with all of the above, life when you’re older is certainly challenging. There does not seem that anyone has an interest in older people. I came from the era where older people were admired, respected and cared for.

  • I am a 67 year old widow. My husband has been gone almost 5 years now. I have been busy selling 2 of our homes we had and selling or giving away all the stuff we had in the past 30 years. This has kept me busy for the past 4 years. Now that I am in my new small house, alone is very hard. I have a daughter but,,, she has her own problems. I feel so isolated never was a outword person. Say “hi” to neighbers. I try to keep a little busy in the summer, cut my lawn, etc, etc. But it is not enough. I watch way to much tv. It just seems I don’t have enough energy or the want to to do any much. Just enough to bring food into the house. And the winter months I dread! I just pray now. It is out of my hands. It is what it is.

  • Is this correlation or causation? Unfortunately this article suggests that loneliness is the cause, but I don’t see any evidence presented to suggest this is clear. It is perhaps even more likely that physical disability and cognitive decline lead to social withdrawal, not the other way around.
    It would be great to know if this was causation. In the absence of evidence, we just can’t make this assumption.
    Medicine has a longstanding, widespread correlation-correlation problem.

    • correction to the final sentence…
      Medicine has a longstanding causation-correlation problem. Correlation is often assumed to be causation. Better scientific standards are needed.

  • It is extremely difficult to go anyplace to socialize let alone the grocery store. Most elderly don’t drive or a disability prevents them or simply having the money to pay for services is out of the question. I’m not sure of statistics all I know is most people can’t afford to pay for “Dial A Ride”.
    These people are forgotten after dedicating their lives to others, now they are forgotten and its so very sad.

  • It would be interesting to know how many children these lonely people have. I’m betting just one or two. This is another argument for the return of larger families and the investment in the lives of their children while they are young so there will be a return of dividends.

    • Good point, Melodie! I’m one of four children, & it’s such a comfort to be able to share the care of our octogenarian parents. My siblings are the greatest gifts my parents ever gave me!

      My husband is one of two children, & it’s a struggle as his lonely elderly parents & busy brother live in two other states.

  • The benefits aren’t confined to lonely older adults. The benefits to people who volunteer in a campaign like this are incalculable! Wonderful!

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