by Susan McDaniels
Last month, Forward Chicago hosted a conference, Aging 2.0: Aging Your Way, at Swedish Covenant Hospital that included a presentation by Dr. Louise Hawkley on connections and friendship in later life.
Dr. Hawkley, senior research scientist at NORC at the University of Chicago, discussed her research about the cause and consequences of loneliness and social isolation as we age. She highlighted that loneliness may be “an inherited sensitivity to social pain” and noted that in some cultures, there may be no word to describe loneliness, but the feeling may still exist.
Loneliness, and low levels of social contacts with family, friends, and community, all have an impact on physical and mental health. Indicators include increased feelings of anxiety, depressive symptoms, cognitive decline and dementia, and sleep disturbance.
Loneliness also predicts “an increased risk of hypertension, an increase in stress hormone, and an increase in pro-inflammatory gene expression profile.”
Strategies to help prevent and reduce lonely feelings and increase social connection in older adults may be different for men and women. Women seek “relational connection” as a way to manage feelings of loneliness, while men seek “collective connectedness” in groups to ameliorate feeling lonely.
One model suggested as a way to increase social connection is called EASES: Extend yourself to others and step outside your comfort zone, make a plan of action, join activities with others and synergize connections, expect the best, and the synchrony of efforts will result in a positive outcome. Overall, find a purpose in life and get involved!