Healthy Hearts: Understanding and Addressing the Health Effects of Loneliness and Isolation

Since 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson first declared February American Heart Month to bring attention to heart disease in the United States, February has been a time to educate the public about heart health, a term that brings to mind the importance of diet and exercise for a healthy cardiovascular system. But there are other, less obvious factors that contribute to a healthy heart: social isolation and loneliness can both increase a person’s chances for heart disease and stroke, as well as other health concerns.

Senior man alone

Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Adults

The terms social isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, but they are separate issues. Traci Dobronravova, director of Seniors At Home, explains the difference: “Social isolation is objective—socially isolated people have infrequent social contacts. Loneliness is more subjective. It’s the distressing feeling of social isolation. You can think of loneliness as the discrepancy between actual and desired level of social connection.”

Older adults are particularly vulnerable to both loneliness and social isolation. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report that more than one-third of adults aged 45 and older feel lonely, while almost one-quarter of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. Older adults are more likely than young people to live alone, suffer from chronic illness or hearing loss, and experience the loss of family friends—all factors that put them at increased risk for social isolation.

Social Isolation Among Family Caregivers

Family caregivers are also at risk of social isolation, since this role requires the full attentiveness of the caregiver, and often leads to reduced social interactions. Support groups offer a way to provide family caregivers with emotional support, information, and resources.

Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness

The health effects of isolation and loneliness can be serious. In addition to increased risk of heart disease or stroke, consequences can include increased levels of depression and anxiety, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, and impaired immunity. The World Health Organization reports that social isolation can be as damaging to a person’s health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that it is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, and a significant increase in a person’s risk of premature death from all causes.

Seniors At Home Helps Reduce Social Isolation

Seniors At Home offers several programs to increase a sense of community and reduce social isolation for older adults. Widow/Widower Café on the Peninsula hosts monthly events for seniors who have lost a partner or spouse; Skyview Zoom is a program for adults with memory impairment; and Café by the Bay offers Holocaust survivors weekly gatherings to discuss issues of concern and to gain strength and support from one another. Seniors At Home caregivers can also be a source of companionship, in addition to offering assistance with daily needs.

Community and connection are key to helping reduce social isolation and loneliness. Seniors At Home is here to help. If you or someone you care about needs assistance, please reach out to Seniors At Home at 415-449-3700 or contact us online.

Seniors At Home is a division of Jewish Family and Children’s Services, a trusted nonprofit institution that has been providing care since 1850. Our services are funded by fees and by donations for those who cannot afford the full cost of care for these critical services