What’s the single biggest health risk facing middle age folks today? Here’s a hint – it’s not obesity. Nor is it the risks associated with smoking. It’s something far less obvious. The greatest health threat in mid-life is loneliness.
The hectic pace of mid-life – the demands of work and family, for example – can take a toll on our social lives, which, in turn, can make us more vulnerable to disease. And the older a person gets, the lonelier he can become. Sometimes this isn’t even about an absence of people in his life but is instead reflective of his perception of feeling isolated from the world.
Men tend to be more at risk for loneliness than women. Studies on maintaining friendships show that men bond with through experiences, like going to a ball game or playing a round of golf. Women, on the other hand, foster friendships differently – they are more likely to keep in touch and to nurture emotional connections. While men share experiences, women share feelings. So, men have to be more intentional about keeping friendships active.
And, no, guys, that doesn’t mean just mean being more active on Facebook. Social media isn’t a substitute for the deep friendships and connections we foster when we spend face time with others.
It’s good to be clear here. When we talk about the negative impact of isolation, we’re not just talking about a threat to our psyches, although that’s a factor too. The dangers of loneliness and isolation run so deep that they affect our physical health. How? And how do we know?
Scientists have been studying this phenomenon since the early 1980s. According to research at the time, people who were more socially isolated than their peers were more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors. The data were adjusted for factors like age, gender, and lifestyle choices, like exercising and eating right. Still, the connection between isolation and decreased longevity was there.
Loneliness has also been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, and the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. One study even found that loneliness could be as much of a long-term risk factor to a person’s health as smoking.
Recent research isn’t any rosier. In 2015, a huge study came out of Brigham Young University. This newer study used data from 3.5 million people collected over a span of 35 years. The findings? Those people who fall into the categories of loneliness, isolation, or even simply living on their own see their risk of premature death rise between 26 to 32 percent.
In the United States today, nearly a third of people age 65 or older live alone. By age 85, this percentage increases to about half. Look at the math and the data on the harmful effects of isolation, and you can understand why the surgeon general recently declared loneliness a public health epidemic.
But, remember, ultimately we are the directors of our social lives and our health. And it’s never too late to make positive change. As I point out in my book, “You Can Retire Sooner Than You Think,” the happiest retirees are the ones who keep close friendships and stay socially active. Not only will being more connected make you happier, it will also make you healthier. So consider taking the time to fill your social calendar for the following weeks and months. Your mind and body will be glad you did.