How social isolation impacts health for older adults

How social isolation impacts health for older adults

The current drive to help the aged live at home for longer may be creating increased levels of isolation and loneliness for them. The move to help the older adults to remain in their familiar surroundings mainly focuses on meeting their physical care rather than their full range of health and social needs; this can lead to adverse effects in their lives. Multiple factors precipitate loneliness and social isolation, these include; health problems and disability, living alone and sensory impairments, for instance, hearing. Factors such as the death of a spouse have been considered as one of the main reasons that cause social and emotional isolation among the aged. This is made worse in the case where there is a reduced communication between the individual and the family members or the unfamiliar neighborhood. The emphasis laid about older adults’ independence has led to increased social disengagement and physical isolation, as a result, triggers insecurity and instability. According to the research done by the Australian aged provider, it is evident that around 50% of the seniors report loneliness as compared to the 10% that mingles with the general population (Grenade, 2008). Apart from being lonely and sad, social isolation can lead to multiple emotional and physical effects to the aged. This review, therefore, focuses on the impacts of social isolation for older adults.

Social isolation exposes older adults to higher mortality risk. According to the 2012 research by the Proceeding of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), social isolation increases the risk of mortality among the older adults above 52 years (Steptoe, 2013). The University of Chicago in their study also showed that the seniors who are exposed to extreme loneliness are likely to have a premature death. From the survey, it was evident that around 14% of the aged exposed to severe loneliness die earlier that they are supposed to. The information was echoed by the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) which revealed that increased loneliness among the aged leads to declined mental and physical health (Ong, 2016). A lonely individual only stays alone, and this means that he/she is likely to have very little time to talks to friends. At other times, they don’t do exercises because they are only alone in the compound; this deteriorates their physical health. On the other hand, lonely adults always think a lot because there is no one to talk to; this affects their emotional health, and as a result, premature death is likely to occur. Interestingly, but sadly, there is a tendency for the aged to visit the hospital emergency departments regularly, they don’t go there to seek medical attention but for social interactions. According to the Australian government website for the aged care, around 60% of the lonely old people are likely to visit the access emergency services more regularly than the aged who periodically interacts with the general population.

Social isolation can have direct impacts on cardiovascular disease risk factors. Severe isolation is significantly associated with decreased sleep, increased inflammation and increased sympathetic nervous system; all these factors cause brain acceleration and cardiovascular aging (Lagraauw, 2015). According to Cacioppo, social interaction among individuals promotes brain health (Cacioppo, 2014). The elderly who fails to interact with the general population, therefore, can have poor brain health. Loneliness facilitates cardiovascular mortality; the critical metabolic risk factors include; cortisol responses to stress and increased blood pressure. This is dangerous to the aged because it exposes the victim of isolation to increased stroke and heart attack risk. It is also evident that loneliness can affect the immune system, hence, increasing the risk of infections. It can result in insomnia or lack of enough sleep. Costa et al., in their research suggested that isolated older adults have a non-restorative sleep or onset latency in their sleep; these aged adults, therefore, mainly complain of insomnia. According to the research, lack of social support affects the quality of sleep among the aged (Choi, 2015). Lack of quality sleep or insomnia has adversely affected in the body; it affects daytime function, mood, dementia risk, cardiovascular risk, glucose regulation, and immune function.

Social isolation increases the vulnerability to drug abuse among the aged. As a result of increased depression due to separation, the elderly are likely to indulge in drug abuse. From the study done by the US National Center on Elder Abuse, there is a strong connection linked to social isolation and increased drug abuse among adults (Yorgason, 2013). The elderly increases drug consumption as a way of coping with the depression affecting them due to social isolation. The times of India also echoed by reporting that social isolation can lead to substance addiction. When an individual consumes alcohol or any other drug, a chemical known as dopamine is triggered in the brain; this brings, euphoria, pressure or even wellbeing. It has been generally understood that this is the key to the development of addition. When the brain becomes accustomed to experiencing a lot of dopamine after an elderly takes the drug, the body becomes dependent on the presence of drugs to have healthy functioning (Solof, 2013). The study observed that the aged who are detached from the members of the family becomes more sensitive to rewards of taking alcohol or any other drugs as their brains become more susceptible to experiencing sudden spikes of dopamine. Social isolation is, therefore, significantly associated with drug abuse addiction.

In conclusion, social isolation has adverse effects on the lives of older adults. Loneliness increases the risk of mortality; according to the various surveys done, the elderly who are detached from other community members are likely to have a premature death. Isolation and loneliness also increase the risks of cardiovascular diseases. Severe isolation is substantially associated with decreased sleep, increased inflammation and increased sympathetic nervous system. All of these factors cause brain acceleration and cardiovascular aging. Isolation also causes the aged to take alcohol and other drugs. Loneliness is substantially associated with depression, the elderly, therefore, end up taking drugs to overcome depression. Various measures, therefore, need to be put in place to prevent social isolation among older adults. We need to address the incontinence issues among the elderly for example, through proper medication and supplies. In this way, the aged will recognize their social potentials and live without embarrassments. The elders also need to be encouraged on attending social congregation such as churches; in this way, a connection is created which curbs isolation. The young individuals also need to provide extra support to senior members who have lost a family member, friend or spouse. This will help in reduction of prolonged depression and isolation.



Grenade, L., & Boldy, D. (2008). Social isolation and loneliness among older people: issues and future challenges in community and residential settings. Australian Health Review32(3), 468-478.

Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P., & Wardle, J. (2013). Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences110(15), 5797-5801.

Ong, A. D., Uchino, B. N., & Wethington, E. (2016). Loneliness and health in older adults: A mini-review and synthesis. Gerontology62(4), 443-449.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social relationships and health: The toxic effects of perceived social isolation. Social and personality psychology compass8(2), 58-72.

Choi, H., Irwin, M. R., & Cho, H. J. (2015). Impact of social isolation on behavioral health in the elderly: Systematic review. World Journal of Psychiatry5(4), 432.

Cacioppo, J. T., & Hawkley, L. C. (2003). Social isolation and health, with an emphasis on underlying mechanisms. Perspectives in biology and medicine46(3), S39-S52.

Cacioppo, J. T., Hawkley, L. C., Crawford, L. E., Ernst, J. M., Burleson, M. H., Kowalewski, R. B., … & Berntson, G. G. (2002). Loneliness and health: Potential mechanisms. Psychosomatic Medicine64(3), 407-417.

Lagraauw, H. M., Kuiper, J., & Bot, I. (2015). Acute and chronic psychological stress as risk factors for cardiovascular disease: Insights gained from epidemiological, clinical and experimental studies. Brain, behavior, and immunity50, 18-30.

Yorgason, J. T., España, R. A., Konstantopoulos, J. K., Weiner, J. L., & Jones, S. R. (2013). Enduring increases in anxiety‐like behavior and rapid nucleus accumbens dopamine signaling in socially isolated rats. European Journal of Neuroscience37(6), 1022-1031.

Solof, B. (2013). The Therapist’s Guide to Addiction Medicine: A Handbook for Addiction Counselors and Therapists. Central Recovery Press, LLC.