Loneliness in older adults: A new epidemic of society

Loneliness is the new epidemic of society today. Loneliness is particularly common in older adults, whose children have grown up and left the nest and are busy with their lives.

The amygdala in the brain plays a key role in regulating emotions and emotional responses.  The dorsal posterior insula regulates perception of pain; it becomes more active when we are lonely, so anything that happens to socially isolated people is more painful.

Cortisol is the fight or flight hormone. Oxytocin along with serotonin and dopamine constitute the happy hormones. Increase in dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin increase the positive emotions in the body.

Brain derived neurotrophic factor is another chemical, which helps the brain to remain plastic, or flexible, so that we can continue to hold on to past memories and create new ones. This chemical is present in low amounts in socially isolated people.

Loneliness is harmful socially; it is also bad for health, a fact which has been corroborated in studies. Loneliness is a strong predictor of heart disease, stroke or premature death.

A new article published April 29, 2019 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal has addressed the effect of loneliness on older patients. As per the article, loneliness is:

  • an emotional state of perceived isolation; it is not a mental disorder
  • common in older adults and linked to declines in health
  • as harmful as other risk factors for death, such as obesity and smoking
  • a significant predictor of health care usage
  • possibly alleviated by “social prescribing” to connect lonely adults with community supports and social networks

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