Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Even the youngest state in the nation grows old eventually. Are we ready for it?

How loneliness hurts older Utahns’ health and what could help

An empty bench at St. George’s Town Square Park, Dec. 26, 2023.
David Condos
An empty bench at St. George’s Town Square Park, Dec. 26, 2023.

Imagine a medicine that could both reliably lengthen your lifespan and lessen your risk for heart disease, stroke and dementia.

“It also comes with few side effects,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, director of Brigham Young University’s Social Connection and Health Lab. “Everyone would want to invest in that.”

This isn’t a new miracle drug. It’s social connection, and Holt-Lunstad said it can have a huge boost to human health.

Her research has found loneliness can increase a person’s risk of premature death roughly as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and significantly more than physical inactivity, obesity or air pollution. Another study found that 10 hours without social contact impacts our bodies similarly to 10 hours of going without food.

Loneliness has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, as illustrated by a Surgeon General’s spring 2023 advisory. But Holt-Lunstad, who was the science editor of that warning, said the clinical value of social interactions remains largely underappreciated.

“It's often seen as nice to have, but not essential,” Holt-Lunstad said. “And yet it's critical.”

The real danger, she said, is that the longer people lack social connections, the more the craving for contact may go away. Once someone has adapted to isolation, it can become increasingly difficult to leave the house or go to social events.

While the holiday season isn’t necessarily the loneliest time of year, she said, for someone who doesn’t have those connections or isn’t able to be together with loved ones, December may bring more reminders of what they’re missing.

“That may heighten the loneliness for some,” Holt-Lunstad said. “But the counter is that there are so many services and opportunities that are reaching out to people during the holidays, as well.”

She cautions against viewing loneliness as an issue that’s exclusive to older adults. For instance, she’s working with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services on research showing that loneliness is highest in adolescent Utahns, peaking in the 10th grade.

Older adults can face extra health risks from isolation, though. Karen Fingerman, director of the Texas Longevity Center at the University of Texas, said even though older adults may have lower rates of loneliness than younger people, they often feel the health effects more acutely.

“Your body's more reactive,” Fingerman said. “So even if the older population is less lonely, they still may be at greater risk.”

Loneliness can manifest physically in a variety of ways.

“By definition, it's emotional distress,” said Ashwin Kotwal, an assistant professor of geriatric medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “When people are experiencing this stressful experience over many, many years or even decades, it can lead to a stress response in the body.”

The biggest way it can show up is chronic inflammation. That causes wear and tear on our bodies and can directly lead to cardiac arrest or dementia.

Valuable social connections aren’t limited to close friends and family. Informal bonds such as talking with the same cashier at the grocery store every week or running into an acquaintance on the sidewalk can be vital, even if those relationships don’t turn into something more. And many of the health conditions that accompany old age can limit a person’s mobility, making those everyday interactions a challenge.

Seeing older adults as victims of isolation who need to be rescued, however, doesn’t capture the whole picture, he said. For instance, younger generations could learn a lot from the life experiences older people have to share.

“It's really a two-way street,” Kotwal said. “When we reduce the opportunities for older adults to participate in our communities, it affects us all.”

When it comes to solutions, he said health care and government leaders could better serve older patients by funding care that prioritizes the social aspect of quality of life as much as other medical treatments. When patients mention that they’re lonely, doctors could also use that as a starting point for a deeper conversation.

“Sometimes people are experiencing major life transitions, like the loss of a spouse. That doesn't have a simple fix, but simply providing space to show that you care can make a difference,” said Kotwal.

Addressing health issues that can fuel isolation — such as vision and hearing problems or conditions that make it hard to walk — can open doors for older adults to better connect with others.

Technological advancements like video chatting with relatives who live far away or having conversations with robots using artificial intelligence can help, too.

Digital connections aren’t a substitute for in-person contact, Holt-Lunstad of BYU said, but they can enhance someone’s overall connectedness.

Volunteering or providing services for neighbors is another way for older adults to be deliberate about strengthening their social interactions, both around the holidays and year-round. That can often feel less intimidating than asking for help, she said, and your health still reaps the benefits.

“Reaching out to others and seeing how you can help them can not only reduce your own loneliness but can also start to strengthen those social bonds with others and perhaps get you out of that cycle.”

David Condos is KUER’s southern Utah reporter based in St. George.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.