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Resilient aging is a science: How lonely are your relationships?

Feeling extreme loneliness can increase an older person's chances of premature death by 14 percent, according to research by John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Cacioppo and his colleagues' work shows that the impact of loneliness on premature death is nearly as strong as the impact of disadvantaged socioeconomic status, which they found increases the chances of dying early by 19 percent. A 2010 meta-analysis showed that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as does obesity, he said.

 Loneliness is a major health risk for older adults.
Photo credit: Robert Kozloff/University of Chicago. Loneliness is a major health risk for older adults.

University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo discussed "The Science of Resilient Aging." Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University. He joined other scholars to speak at a seminar on "The Science of Resilient Aging" Feb. 16, 2014 at the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual meeting in Chicago.

The researchers looked at dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health as people age

Cacioppo and colleagues have examined the role of satisfying relationships on older people to develop their resilience, the ability to bounce back after adversity and grow from stresses in life. The consequences to health are dramatic, as feeling isolated from others can disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, increase morning rises in the stress hormone cortisol, alter gene expression in immune cells, and increase depression and lower overall subjective well-being, Cacioppo pointed out in a talk, "Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging."

Cacioppo, one of the nation's leading experts on loneliness, said older people can avoid the consequences of loneliness by staying in touch with former co-workers, taking part in family traditions, and sharing good times with family and friends – all of which gives older adults a chance to connect others about whom they care and who care about them.

Staying in touch with traditions and connecting to others about whom they care

"Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn't necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you," said Cacioppo. Population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health all the more important, he explained. But what of those seniors who really don't care about people who have betrayed their friendships, relatives who prey on them or steal their belongings, or relatives who hide relatives because they're ashamed or afraid of the older adult's religion, ethnicity, race, educational level, poverty, habits, introversion, or occupation?

"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65," he said in the February 16, 2014 news release, Loneliness is a major health risk for older adults. "People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality." Yet some seniors are afraid of their family members, especially if they have been abused or if the mental illness of relatives poses a danger of violence toward the elderly.

Some seniors may choose isolation as protection from family members. That's why you sometimes have a person who has passed on, and it remains unknown for many years. See the Huffington Post article, "Sydney Woman's Remains Found Years After Death." An 85-year old woman's remains were found in her bedroom eight years after her passing, and no one noticed. Had had one remaining relative, an in-law, to whom she hadn't spoken in many years.

And no one reported her missing until nearly a decade later. In another case, again, eight years passed before a man's body was discovered in his apartment. See, "Man Found Dead In His Apartment 8 Years After Apparent Suicide." Check out, "9 People Who Were Found Dead...Years After Their Deaths." In one case, a woman was found sitting in front of her TV set, 42 years after she passed. This either shows how few people are interested in visiting older adults to see how they're getting along, or if anyone visited when the person was alive, the person was not closely tied in friendship or as a close relative who checks frequently on the older adult's well-being. And some people go to great lengths to be left alone by neighbors, friends, relatives, and people who come knocking at the door to sell something or ask for charity donations.

Although some people are happy to be alone, most people thrive from social situations in which they provide mutual support and develop strong rapport

Evolution encouraged people to work together to survive and accordingly most people enjoy companionship over being alone. People who are happy to be alone and isolated from others frequently have been abused by those they have known, including strangers they have randomly met who harmed them or people they thought were friends until the friend hurt them in some way, either economic, emotionally, or through verbal, economic, and physical abuse or through threats or a betrayal of friendship.

These people have learned that contact with strangers often leads to a frightening experience rather than a warm and friendly encounter. And some women were married to men who divorced them and took custody of the children who looked at the older adult as a stranger from a strange land, a person of a religion they feared or disdained, or belonging to traditions or ethnic groups they didn't want to associated with because of the children's choice of spouse and culture different from the parent.

Three core dimensions to healthy relationships identified

Research by Cacioppo and his colleagues has identified three core dimensions to healthy relationships —intimate connectedness, which comes from having someone in your life you feel affirms who you are; relational connectedness, which comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding; and collective connectedness, which comes from feeling that you're part of a group or collective beyond individual existence.

It is not solitude or physical isolation itself, but rather the subjective sense of isolation that Cacioppo's work shows to be so profoundly disruptive. Older people living alone are not necessary lonely if they remain socially engaged and enjoy the company of those around them. Some aspects of aging, such as blindness and loss of hearing, however, place people at a special risk for becoming isolated and lonely, he said, according to the news release.

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