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Loneliness Linked to Death, Disability

Studies Show That People Who Live Alone or Feel Lonely May Have Worse Health

Tracking the Impact of Loneliness on Health continued...

Loneliness was also tied to a greater likelihood that a person would have difficulty doing basic daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, eating, bathing, or dressing.

Perissinotto, who makes house calls to her elderly patients, says she was surprised at the big impact of loneliness.

"Finding the association was a little bit sad," she says, because it made her realize that her patients who reported being lonely were at even greater risk of decline.

"I have a patient who's been losing weight," she says. "She has resources, but she doesn't enjoy eating anymore because it's not a social experience. She's lonely and she says it straight out: 'I'm lonely.'"

Perissinotto says, in this case, getting her patient to eat regularly will depend not just on a getting her a meal, but on making sure there's a person there at mealtimes to engage her in conversation.

But loneliness doesn't always cause health problems. Sometimes, physical problems can bring on loneliness.

Perissinotto says she has another patient who's still mentally sharp, but has trouble climbing the stairs of her apartment building so she rarely gets out of her house to meet other people.

Getting Help for Loneliness

Beyond individual cases, previous studies suggest that there are myriad ways loneliness harms health.

People who are lonely are less likely to sleep well. They are also more likely to be anxious and stressed, have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. And they are more likely to experience declines in thinking and memory.

"No matter if you're a man or woman or what country you're from, it's important to be surrounded by people who emotionally support you," says Suzanne Steinbaum, MD, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

"We are social beings. We really do need to have a team of people. We thrive with having friends and family and being loved," says Steinbaum, who was not involved in the studies.

Loneliness can be a tough problem to tackle, Steinbaum says, but it can be done. She's seen heart attack patients, for example, thrive in cardiac rehabilitation, not just because of the exercise, but also because they're surrounded by people who can relate to what they're going through.

Some psychologists specialize in helping people with chronic illnesses, Steinbaum notes. "Everybody needs a support system," she says.

Even for people who don't have friends and family around them, "studies have shown that having a pet can be useful," Bhatt says.

Perissinotto agrees, and says it's important for people to share feelings of isolation and loneliness with their primary care doctor.

"There are a lot of resources out there," she says. "It's a matter of connecting people to the right program."

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