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Senior Lifestyles: Socialization can save your life

We all know that there are illnesses and conditions that are truly life-threatening. One problem facing more than 33 percent of American adults is morbid obesity which can substantially raise your risk for premature death, and most people in that cohort have been warned by doctors, family and friends that they are at risk.

Having stated that, are you aware that there are two non-medical conditions that exist that may pose an even higher risk for premature death among both young adults and seniors than does obesity?

Brigham Young University conducted a research study that revealed that, “…loneliness and social isolation may increase the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent.” To better understand the difference between isolation and loneliness, which are often used interchangeably, the study defined them as follows: “Social isolation is defined as a lack of contact with other individuals, while loneliness is the feeling that one is emotionally disconnected from others. In essence, a person can be in the presence of others and still feel lonely.”

Most of us have felt loneliness at some point during our lives. In fact, a 2016 Harris poll of 2,000 adults in the U.S. found that almost 72 percent say they’ve experienced being lonely. But what was astounding was that 31 percent of the participants stated that they “…felt lonely at least once a week.”

Other medical research has reported that both loneliness and social isolation have been associated with poor health, and in some studies, loneliness has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and social isolation to reduced survival for breast cancer patients.

In younger adults, the research suggests that loneliness may have a negative impact on sleep quality. The risk of premature death was 50 percent higher for those who were socially isolated compared to adults who had greater social connections with others.

Think about our world today with people going out to a restaurant only to sit across from each other and bury themselves in their smartphones, supposedly enjoying an isolated existence from real people sitting inches apart. Couples are living together in isolation, and don’t even recognize the damage being done to the concept and benefits of being connected to other people in real time.

This problem can also critically impact the elderly. Researchers found that isolation among the elderly who lived alone or had little socialization or contact with the outside world of real people was “associated with an increased risk of early death … and living alone was equal or greater than the premature death risk associated with obesity and other major health conditions.”

So the questions become what to do and how to do it? The answer may actually be best found with training that begins early in one’s life. Some researchers suggest that we change today’s focus away from learning to use Facebook, Twitter and other social media that is not very social. They believe it’s more important to learn to relate and deal with real people in real time on a face-to-face basis, and focus on social skills training and people-to-people connections.

For older adults this means adding one more item to their “To Do” list as they plan for their retirement and golden years. In addition to written wills, advance directives and financial planning, we have to develop social connections, whether they begin in the workplace and continue, or if they are available when we retire. Friendships, acquaintances and gatherings all open the door to opportunities to meet new people and cultivate new friendships. This may have as much to do with your longevity and quality of those years as does your physical health.

Ron Kauffman is a consultant and expert speaker on issues of aging, Medicare and Obamacare. Ron is the author of “Caring for a Loved One with Alzheimer’s Disease, available as a Kindle book on Amazon.com. He may be contacted at 828-696-9799 or drron561@gmail.com.