Social isolation is not only unpleasant; it can be deadly. Someone who lacks social relationships has the same risk for early death as someone who is severely obese, according to a 2015 analysis by researchers at Brigham Young University. The feeling of loneliness, or a person’s perception of being isolated, has been linked to higher blood pressure and cognitive decline. Taken together, social isolation and loneliness were associated with a 29 percent increased risk for coronary heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk for stroke, according to another large-scale analysis led by researchers at the University of York in Great Britain.
Just how isolation erodes health is a matter of some speculation. Scientists have long thought that interaction with others is beneficial because of “social control.” Friends and family members prop each other up, encouraging good behavior and healthy habits. When those relationships break down, so can a person’s health.
But in recent years, research has found that something more is at work: Loneliness, often thought of as a matter of the heart, may actually change the brain. The authors of a 2015 paper published in the Annual Review of Psychology theorize that chronic loneliness increases activity in a network of glands that control stress responses and create an inflammatory effect that raises the risk for chronic illnesses.
Nearly half of Mainers 65 and older — about 46 percent — live alone, slightly higher than the national rate, according to 2015 U.S. Census data; fewer than one-third lived alone in 1990. Older adults who are lonely are less likely to be married and more likely to have annual household income of $25,000 or less, according to a report conducted for the AARP Foundation by Hawkley and others at NORC using 2010 data. Experts say shifts in family dynamics have compounded other factors that are part of rural life that contribute to isolation, including poor public transportation and long travel times to grocery stores, doctors, community centers or even neighbors’ homes.