Loneliness is a universal experience that acts as a huge indicator of social well-being. Contrary to popular belief, loneliness is not necessarily caused by being alone — it’s caused by being without necessary interpersonal relationships. Although anyone can experience loneliness, it’s a significant problem for seniors, as it can lead to a considerably impaired quality of life.

Though some people think that loneliness is a state of mind, the psychiatric and physical effects of loneliness are extremely real. A 2014 scientific review from the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research found that loneliness can lead to a variety of psychological problems.

Those psychological problems include:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Personality disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease

Physically, loneliness can lead to:

  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Lupus
  • Arthritis
  • Hypertension
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Physiological aging
  • Poor hearing
  • All around poor health

What types of loneliness exist?

There are three types of loneliness: internal, situational, and developmental, according to Sarvada Chandra Tiwari, a psychiatrist who authored the scientific paper, “Loneliness: A disease?” They are each categorized by their causes.

Internal loneliness: This is caused by mental distress, low self-esteem, personality factors, poor coping strategies, and feelings of guilt or worthlessness.

Situational loneliness: This is caused by socio-economic status; culture; and various environmental factors, such as interpersonal conflicts, population migration, accidents, disasters, unpleasant experiences, and a discrepancy between the lonely individual’s needs and their social contacts.

Developmental loneliness: This is caused by significant separations, poverty, living arrangements, physical or psychological disabilities, social marginality, personal inadequacies, and developmental deficits.

Who is most affected by loneliness?

“According to a study from UCSF, 43 percent of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis., said Kumar Dharmarajan, MD, MBA a geriatrician and Chief Scientific Officer atClover Health. “This fact is not only sad, but it’s also dangerous and expensive. The same study from UCSF also found that persons 60 years and older who report feeling lonely face a 45 percent increased risk of mortality. A separate study found that social isolation among seniors may be responsible for an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending each year.”

The number of Americans age 65 and older is projected to more than double by 2060, according to a 2016 Population Reference Bureau (PRB) report, “Aging in the United States.” Right now, there are about 46 million people over the age of 65 living in America. By 2060, that number is expected to reach over 98 million, which will make up almost 24 percent of the population.

The PRB report predicts that the demand for elder care will also increase significantly because the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease may nearly triple from five million in 2013 to 14 million in 2050.

In 2014, more than 27 percent of women age 65 to 74 lived alone. That number jumped to 42 percent of women age 75 to 84 and, again, to 56 percent of women age 85 and older.

Knowing these statistics, it’s important to intervene before loneliness takes its toll on the mental and physical well-being of America’s elderly population.

What can be done to minimize the effects of loneliness for seniors?

Luckily, loneliness is something that can often be overcome. If you are or someone you love is a senior struggling with loneliness, consider using Elder Helpers’ search tool to connect with volunteers in your area free of cost.

“Staying social and involved in your community is good for your health,” said Dr. Dharmarajan.

The following five tips are suggestions from Dr. Dharmarajan for seniors who face loneliness on a regular basis:

  1. Start volunteering. “There are plenty of opportunities to volunteer,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “Reach out to local charities to see what is available or check out groups like Senior Corps, which offer volunteer programs specifically for older adults including tutoring and mentoring children, helping other elderly community members, and disaster relief support.”
  2. Adopt a pet. “Many animal shelters offer ‘seniors for seniors’ adoption programs, with reduced adoption fees for older adults looking to adopt older animals,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “Animals are proven to provide both physical and mental benefits to owners and can reduce loneliness. Even if you aren’t able to adopt a pet, you may consider foster care or volunteer at your local shelter.”
  3. Visit your local senior center. “Senior centers are a great place to meet other older individuals, and often offer activities ranging from exercise classes, book groups, and trips across the country or even globally,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “They’re not just for bingo anymore!”
  4. Try technology to stay in touch. “Many older adults live away from their family and friends and may struggle to keep in touch,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “Test out FaceTime or Skype to communicate with loved ones — the face to face contact of video chatting may be especially effective at reducing depression in seniors when compared to other forms of communication like phone and email.”
  5. Sign up for continuing education. “Many local community colleges offer low-cost classes, some of which are specifically for seniors,” said Dr. Dharmarajan. “Try out a new hobby or revisit an old one, all while meeting people in your community.”

Finally, if you or a loved one are struggling with loneliness, you may want to consider seeking the professional help of a therapist to help you overcome self-defeating thoughts and behaviors.