By Candice Freese, Valley VNA Wellness Coordinator

Even in the midst of a crowd, we can still feel alone and disconnected. When our human need for deep, meaningful, and consistent social relationships is not met, real and significant negative effects arise in our bodies and minds. According to University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, the effects of loneliness or rejection are as real as thirst, hunger, or pain. “The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects,” he said.

When people are lonely:

  • Sleep is interrupted many times per night
  • Gene expressions are altered which increase stress and aging on the body
  • Cognitive performance is impaired
  • Immunity to disease is compromised
  • Chronic inflammation causes pain and disease
  • The health risk of loneliness or social isolation is comparable to obesity, substance abuse, injury and violence, and degraded environmental quality

Studies show loneliness increases the risk for early death by 45 percent and the chance of developing dementia in later life by 64 percent. However, people who have strong ties to family and friends are as much as 50 percent less at risk of dying over any given period of time than those with fewer social connections.

We all go through periods of loneliness after the death of a spouse, a move to a new city or living situation, or a romantic break-up. These periods of situational loneliness can become chronic, also known as trait loneliness. Trait loneliness develops when a person is unable to rebuild beneficial relationships after a loss or move. The strong social structures of yesteryear – religious institutions, extended family, and neighborhood groups – are fading and leave many people without the tools to rebuild. If a person blames herself for lacking social skills or being incapable of bouncing back, the problem snowballs. To help, friends, family, and caregivers can:

  • Call, not text. If you leave a message and don’t get a call back, try again.
  • Set up a low-key outing, like a walk or a car ride. Simply talk about what you see.
  • Avoid diminishing or dismissing the lonely person’s feelings.
  • Remember to practice simple acts of kindness daily. Say hello to your neighbor, smile at the person at the bus stop, or ask a question that encourages conversation. You may never know how much it matters.

The propensity to suffer chronic loneliness has also recently been discovered to have a genetic component; that is, it’s partially inherited. People with this trait tend to respond well to activities that address depression and other long-term negative emotional states, like mindfulness meditation.

The staff at Valley VNA recognizes loneliness as a genuine medical and emotional concern. Through in-home visits, Meals-on-Wheels, life enrichment activities, and a newly established wellness program, we strive to build new and enriching connections between residents, staff, and families. To learn more about Valley VNA’s new Movement & Meditation classes to nurture the body and soul, please call (920) 727-5555.