BY DAVE WEINAN
In March, I wrote a column about the three plagues that could potentially affect the well-being of elders: boredom, loneliness and helplessness. I want to revisit one of those, loneliness, with information from a Sept. 6 New York Times article by Katie Hafner.
Researchers have discovered a potential link between loneliness and physical illness, and functional and cognitive decline. As a forecaster of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity. In a paper published in the journal Cell, neuroscientists at M.I.T. identified a region of the brain they believe generates feelings of loneliness. The region, known as the dorsal raphe nucleus, or D.R.N., is best known for its link to depression. They found that when mice were housed together, dopamine neurons in the D.R.N. were relatively inactive. But after mice were isolated for a short period of time, the activity in those neurons surged when the mice were reunited.
The Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago has been studying loneliness since the 1990s. One of the discoveries the Center has made is that loneliness is an aversive signal much like thirst, hunger or pain. Denying loneliness makes no more sense than denying hunger. But, unfortunately, the very word “lonely” carries a negative connotation, signaling social weakness, or an inability to stand on one’s own.
In some of the other research conducted by the Center, it has been discovered that loneliness affects several key bodily functions, in part through overstimulation of the body’s stress response. Chronic loneliness, the studies have shown, is associated with increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow. The research has also shown that the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells and this can impair the immune system’s ability to fight infections.
Only recently has loneliness been examined through a medical, rather than psychological or sociological, lens. One such study used data from a large national survey of older adults to analyze the relationship between self-reported loneliness and health outcomes in people older than 60. Out of 1,604 participants in the study, 43 percent reported feelings of loneliness and had significantly higher rates of declining mobility, difficulty in performing routine daily activities, and death during six years of follow-up.
Go to www.carecompasspeoria.org for more suggestions and guidance for finding quality elder care.
Dave Weiman is the founder of Care Compass, a free online site to assist elders and their families find Elder Care in the Peoria area. Dave has been engaged for over 10 years in improving the quality of care, so elders can enjoy a life of quality.