Live the Golden Years Alone Without Being Lonely
Nov. 8, 2000 -- First goes hair, then goes libido, then ... the list of physical attributes and bodily processes that decline with advancing age seems endless. But a slew of new research suggests that loneliness seems to improve -- or go away -- with age.
One study, published in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that while older individuals had as many positive feelings as their younger counterparts, negative emotions actually decreased as age increased.
And what's more, this study of more than 180 people aged 18 to 94 years showed that older adults bounce back emotionally easier than younger people.
Also, a survey of more than 700 people aged 13 to 80 found that young adults in their 20s report more pain, distress, and loneliness than all other age groups. That study appeared in the journal Psychological Reports.
"Contrary to popular belief, the elderly report lower distress as part of loneliness than the younger age groups while, due to their maturity and life experiences, they are more able to appreciate the growth and personal development which may result from loneliness," concludes study author Ami Rokach, PhD, a psychologist in Toronto.
But loneliness is not harmless and it's not just about being alone. It is marked by deep feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, and not belonging -- which can occur when a person is alone or even in a crowd.
Research has linked loneliness to depression, anxiety, and anger, as well as increased vulnerability to physical health problems. For example, one study, presented at a meeting of the American Psychological Association in Washington, found that loneliness tends to result in sleep disturbances and blood pressure increases -- both of which raise risk for heart disease.
Therefore, older folks and their loved ones should still be aware that loneliness can easily rear its ugly head.
Gene D. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of the Center of Aging, Health, and Humanity at George Washington University in Washington, suggests that, for many reasons, loneliness is still probably more common among older people. "Loneliness is related to significant relationships, and older people are most at risk of having changes in that direction due to the loss of a spouse and consequent living alone," he says.
Social and mental exercises that come with socializing have a powerful influence over health and longevity. "Loneliness cuts one off and increases risk for depression and other mental and physical problems as they age," Cohen says.
"Just as research is pointing out how depression adversely affects physical as well as general health costs for society, similar studies have emerged around loneliness," he explains in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Depression and loneliness intersect, but they are not the same thing, Cohen says. "Developing new relationships can help relieve loneliness, not depression," he tells WebMD.
In his new book The Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life, Cohen suggests that older people create a "social portfolio" to help prevent and/or treat loneliness.
"It's analogous to a financial portfolio. A social portfolio is a diversified plan of social involvement," Cohen says. For example, he suggests contrasting an energetic dance class with a book club. Another idea is telephone volunteer work balanced by a brisk walk in the park. The idea is to have a variety of activities -- both with groups and alone, high energy and low energy. This way you can have "depth, diversity, and rainy day protection from loneliness," he says.