Social Isolation May Transform Brain, Increase Stress

Studies increasingly show that social isolation is hazardous to your health. Now emerging research is taking things a step further. A 2015 study from the University of Chicago discovered the brains of lonely persons look different from the brains of non-lonely persons, and in testing, lonely people were hypervigilant in their responses to negative stimuli. In other words, these isolated individuals were subconsciously seeking negativity on account of the changes in their brain.

A recent study has also confirmed the disruption of brain chemistry on account of loneliness. Published in the May 17 issue of the journal Cell, researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) found that chronic isolation caused the build-up of a particular chemical in the brain and produced such toxic side effects as fear and aggression.

But the good news is that by blocking this chemical, the adverse effects of isolation were eliminated. So let's explore loneliness in seniors, and the steps that can be taken to prevent social isolation and the physical changes in the brain it causes.

The Epidemic of Loneliness

Science makes a compelling case for the dangers of loneliness, and these poignant stories put a human face on the issue.

The Independent, a UK-based publication, told the story of a senior couple who called 911 during the holiday season because they wanted to talk to someone. Another BBC radio station received a call from a widower, who dialed in just to talk about how much he missed his wife.

Statistics from a UK-based charity, Age UK, said this widower and the lonely couple were not alone in their desperate loneliness: a million older adults in the UK often go an entire month without speaking to anyone.

Here in the US, loneliness rates have doubled since the 1980s, per Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States. Today, he says, over 40 percent of adults report feeling lonely, and new research suggests the number is probably even higher.

As loneliness increases, it’s important to be aware of both the subtle and dramatic signs so you can intervene sooner — and hopefully prevent the brain changes that send too many seniors down a spiraling path of negativity.

How Do I Know If My Loved One Is Lonely?

First, it’s important to know the difference between being alone and being lonely. The words are often used interchangeably, but loneliness and isolation can represent two different things. It’s possible to be lonely without being isolated, and it’s also possible to be isolated without being lonely.

For example, Stephany Hartman, age 65, welcomed the solitude of living alone after decades of raising a family and being a caregiver. She often goes for weeks without face-to-face social contact but maintains critical social connections and companionship through technology and her pets.

In another case, after losing her beloved spouse to dementia (after an intense year of caring for him), a grandmother retreated into isolation and loneliness, despite being surrounded by loving grandchildren and adult children, who lived nearby. She lost weight, hardly ate anything at meal times, and was negative in her conversations, chiding herself as being "such a burden" on her family and often speaking of how her husband had now "left her alone." She also developed a UTI not long after her husband's passing, as she had isolated herself throughout her time of caring for him and had not made self-care a priority.

Signs to watch for that may indicate an older loved one is lonely include:

  1. withdrawal from regular activities (and a lack of enjoyment in/fulfillment from them)
  2. cutting off contact with friends and family
  3. diminished appetite
  4. an unkempt appearance and household (especially if that person had previously been neat and organized)
  5. forgetfulness
  6. apathy
  7. mood swings
  8. changes in personality (more suspicious, paranoid, or negative)
  9. fear of going out in public

The Impact of Caregiving on Isolation

Whether your parent lives with a family member, alone or with an ailing spouse, check their “isolation status” regularly. Maybe your dad cares for your mom, who had a stroke and is fully care dependent. Just because they are spending every minute together doesn’t mean your dad or mom aren’t experiencing an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Your dad may have been a very social person, and while he’s devoted to his wife’s care, is missing his friendships, his hobbies, his connections through work. You find out he feels isolated in his caregiving role even though he doesn’t live alone.

Isolation can sneak up on the caregiver, too. You may have started out just helping Mom with groceries and running some errands when driving became too dangerous. Some weeks later, you’ve found yourself there almost daily, making sure there’s food in the fridge and doing laundry that’s piled up in the corner. Soon after that, you’re taking on bill paying and setting up doctor’s appointments. You realize you haven’t had lunch with a friend or a date night with your spouse. Even as you put your loved one’s care needs and concerns about isolation first, make sure to be mindful of your own isolation.

Companion Care Makes a Difference

For the grandmother we mentioned above, a home care companion was a lifesaver after she suffered a stroke several years after the loss of her husband. Besides providing support with basic daily tasks like meal preparation, laundry, and light housekeeping, the comfort of having another person to talk to was invaluable. On her 90th birthday, her home care companion decorated her studio apartment. The gesture was profoundly touching not only to this grandmother but her entire family.

If you are concerned about a parent who is isolated, it’s important to mitigate the problems associated with isolation and prevent those dangerous chemicals from building up in the brain. Professional companion care can go a long way in preventing both loneliness and isolation. Click here to learn more about this beneficial service.

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