Interview by Stephanie Hainsfurther
Feeling lonely? See your family physician. Not just for the face-to-face interaction, but because your doctor is your point of connection to the assistance and support system you might need. Think of that doctor’s visit as your first step on the path to better health.
Isolation – a lack of meaningful personal connections – is associated with a 50 percent increased risk of dementia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC says that the risk of death is about four times higher, along with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.
Like smoking, obesity and diabetes, social isolation can negatively impact your health. And although you might feel lonely, you’re not alone. A recent AARP Foundation report stated that 17 percent of people over age 65 feel isolated; 46 percent of women over 75 live alone. As people age, both genders have a 26 percent higher risk of early death because of a chronic feeling of loneliness.
A doctor can assess your risk for diseases exacerbated by social isolation. “You need to be connected to the healthcare system,” said Dr. Jaren Trost, senior medical director and rheumatologist at Optum New Mexico. “The system is underused by seniors.”
And yet seniors are most in need of social connection – many have lost loved ones and friends, live alone and might have chronic conditions that limit their mobility.
If you don’t want to wait until your next scheduled doctor’s appointment, UCLA offers a loneliness scale for self assessment. You can self-score 20 statements like “I feel isolated from others” and “It is difficult for me to make friends” with answers like “Often,” “Sometimes,” “Rarely” and “Never.” Add up your score to see if you might be more isolated than you think.
If so, reach out for help, said Dr. Trost. “Problems of loneliness can manifest themselves in substance abuse, memory loss, insomnia, poor self care, or anxiety and depression. Grieving is hard on seniors, widowhood is hard. Your doctor can help you figure out if isolation is causing the problem or if it is depression. They’re two different things.”
About 4 in 10 childless older adults live alone, according to the Census Bureau. Of adults 55 and older, “15.2 million (16.5%) are childless, defined here as having no biological children.” Having no adult children can make social isolation worse for some. LGBTQ+ seniors who grew up during times that stigmatized them are also at higher risk for social isolation, as are first-generation immigrants due to language barriers and other factors, according to the CDC.
The key is to develop meaningful relationships with others – especially your family physician.
“Talking to the cashier at the supermarket or the clerk at the MVD is a social interaction but does not add up to a real relationship,” said Dr. Trost. “But your family doctor has a load of resources for you to plug into your life.”
If you’re over 55, sign up for the Optum New Mexico Community Center at no cost. You don’t even have to be a patient of Optum New Mexico to join. The Community Center offers social opportunities, an afternoon movie, art and fitness classes, exercise machines geared toward seniors and a common room, among other amenities.