How Social Isolation Affects Your Mental and Physical Health as You Age

Your community is key—no matter how old you are.

Feeling connected to a network of family, friends, and acquaintances bolsters your mental and physical health, from the mood-boosting chemicals your brain releases in response to supportive relationships to the exercise routine you maintain when motivated by a partner. But as adults age, they're more likely to report feelings of social isolation and loneliness—especially when public health guidelines limit their options for social interaction—which can negatively impact their overall wellness. Ahead, everything you need to know about the connection between your health and your engagement with your community, including how to stay connected with yours over time.

senior woman alone in room looking at photo album
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Loneliness Versus Social Isolation

Loneliness and social isolation are two different descriptors of a person's connectedness—one based on perception and one on specific numbers. "Loneliness is defined as a subjective feeling of being alone—perceived isolation," says Dr. VJ Periyakoil, a professor of medicine and associate dean of research at Stanford University School of Medicine. "It also relates to the distress that results from discrepancies between ideal and perceived social relationships." This means you might be surrounded by people—at parties, on your township's basketball league, in the workplace—and still feel lonely when you don't find others with whom you connect.

Social isolation, though, isn't just about feeling disconnected. "Social isolation refers to a complete or near-complete lack of contact with society, and it relates to a quantifiable number of relationships—actual isolation," says Dr. Periyakoil. According to research from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, about 25 percent of Americans older than 65 are socially isolated, while more than one-third of adults older than 45 report feeling lonely. "Social isolation can lead to loneliness in some people, while others can feel lonely without being socially isolated," reads a report from the Centers for Disease Control.

Physical and Mental Health Risks

While adults can feel lonely or find themselves socially isolated at any point in their lives, some of the most common causes of social isolation increase with aging: Experiencing the deaths of partners and friends, moving to communities or health facilities farther from loved ones, or developing health issues that impair mobility are all factors. "As people age, they are at greater risk for loneliness and social isolation, and this negatively impacts their well-being," says Dr. Periyakoil. "They do not have work-related social circles and activities, and their health worsens, preventing them from doing social activities. If ignored, loneliness has serious consequences for cognition, emotion, behavior, and health."

There are serious consequences affiliated with social disconnection: A 2018 study published in the Journals of Gerontology used data from 12,000 participants collected over 10 years to calculate a 40 percent increase in the risk of dementia in adults who reported feelings of loneliness—regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, or education—and social isolation has also "been shown to increase the risks of morbidity and mortality similar to known factors, including high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity." Feelings of loneliness and social isolation have been linked to higher rates of heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, suicide, cardiovascular-related hospitalization, and death. "Enforced social isolation erodes well-being, especially for people who are extroverts," says Dr. Periyakoil. "In fact, two epidemics—loneliness and SARS-COV-2—are occurring simultaneously in the United States, especially for older adults."

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