Many aging adults in North Carolina go days or weeks without speaking to another human, and not by choice. These frail-aging are suffering from the effects of social isolation –– which researchers call the “silent killer” or the “silent epidemic.” Occasionally, social isolation is a choice, but more often, it occurs as a result of circumstances older adults cannot control or fix on their own.
Social isolation and loneliness are birds of a feather, but it’s important to note the differences. Someone who is socially isolated spends the vast majority of his or her time alone. This could be for a variety of reasons, including living in a rural area without anyone nearby.
Loneliness, on the other hand, relates more to how someone is feeling. Sadness, distress, depression and feelings of disconnection are common for someone experiencing loneliness. An important distinction between loneliness and isolation is that people can feel very alone even when they are surrounded by others. Major life events, such as the loss of a spouse or loved one, can compound the effects of both loneliness and isolation.
The health risks associated with prolonged isolation and loneliness are very real and very serious, and, to some, quite surprising. Research has shown that the effects of long periods of social isolation rival tobacco use, obesity and lack of physical movement. In fact, health professionals have compared the health risks of isolation to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Several studies also point to an increased risk of cognitive decline and mental health conditions such as depression and dementia.
Health professionals link social isolation and perceived loneliness with high blood pressure, depression, cognitive decline, and a 30% increased risk of premature death.
Simply put, senior adults with healthy relationships and social support are living longer than seniors who are either cut off from the world around them or feeling alone.
Friendly visits, phone calls and even letters can combat feelings of loneliness. If you know someone whom you suspect may be lonely or socially isolated, North Carolina Baptist Aging Ministry (NCBAM) encourages you to reach out to them. Knowing that someone cares, and especially that Jesus cares, can make a world of difference to those in need.
Connect to the NCBAM Call Center by calling 877-506-2226 or visiting www.ncbam.org
Article by Whitney Brooks, NCBAM Advisory Team Member. Whitney Brooks, NBC-HWC, works with individuals and groups as an integrative health coach. She walks alongside folks on their health and wellness journeys through a meaningful, pleasant practice. She is a member of First Baptist Church in uptown Lexington, where she volunteers with the youth ministry. Brooks is a member of NCBAM’s Advisory Team and also serves as an advisor for the ministry’s One Hope outreach. Connect with Brooks at gracewitandwonder.com.