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Is Loneliness an Inevitable Part of Aging?

As we age, social networks change, friends die or move away, our partner or spouse may die or we divorce, neighborhoods change, retirement happens to one or both of a couple, children grow up, we change. All of these and many other “life experiences” can lead to feelings of being alone on the path to old age.

Social isolation is defined as having few rewarding and satisfying relationships. Loneliness is a dissatisfaction with the quality of one’s relationships and connections, hence the old saying of “being lonely in a crowd.” Both human conditions can impact health and well being at any age.

A University of Chicago study in 2010 showed that adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. “For some older adults, a shrinking circle of friends and family can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation. Our findings suggest that those who adapt to losses so that they don’t feel isolated fare better with respect to both physical and mental health,” explained lead author Erin York Cornwell, a Postdoctoral Associate in Sociology at Cornell University who completed her Ph.D. in Sociology at Chicago in 2008.

That adaptation to social isolation may also be illustrated by a recent AARP study. AARP commissioned a national survey of the 45+ population to examine these issues. In addition to examining prevalence rates among older Americans, the study examined the relationships between loneliness and health, health behaviors, involvement in a social network and use of technology for social communications and networking. The study found that older adults reported lower rates of loneliness than those who were younger (43% of those age 45-49 were lonely compared to 25% of those 70+). Lonely respondents were less likely to be involved in activities that build social networks, such as attending religious services, volunteering, participating in a community organization or spending time on a hobby.

So how have you or older adults you know or work with adapted to loneliness?

Featured image: Flickr @x1klima

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