Loneliness in Seniors: Exercise Class Found Valuable Results!


Loneliness in Seniors

When we talk about Senior Health issues, loneliness in seniors is one item that may not get the attention it deserves. It’s a widespread issue, nonetheless, and according to the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine, approximately one quarter of Americans aged 65+ are socially isolated and a significant proportion of adults in the United States report feeling lonely. They go on to say that people over 50 are “more likely to experience many of the risk factors that can cause or exacerbate social isolation or loneliness, such as living alone, the loss of family or friends, chronic illness, and sensory impairments.”

First, let’s define social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is a lack of contact between an individual and society. This can be the person who chooses to live in a cabin in the woods with no contact by choice. Or a person who has seen their list of friends dwindle. Or perhaps, they are getting older and have a difficult time getting out anymore. In all cases, it’s someone with a lack of social connections. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the feeling of being alone. Social isolation can lead to loneliness, or you can be surrounded by people and still feel lonely. 

If the loneliness itself isn’t bad enough, more and more, social isolation and loneliness is demonstrating as a major health risk factor for premature death, comparable to smoking, obesity and high blood pressure.

Health Impacts of Loneliness

According to the CDC, Health is impacted by loneliness in some measurable ways:

  • Social isolation was associated with about a 50% percent increased risk of dementia
  • Poor social relationships (social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke.
  • Loneliness was associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
  • Loneliness among heart failure patients was associated with a nearly 4 times increased risk of death. 68% increased risk of hospitalization, and 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

A recent study centered in Los Angeles by Cedars-Sinai found that seniors lacking social connections are at increased risk for chronic loneliness and the development severe health issues. This trend in loneliness connects to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide. Experts within the study concluded that social isolation could negatively impact an older person’s health as much as smoking fifteen (15) cigarettes a day!

Loneliness and Depression

In older adults, depression stemming from loneliness may be more challenging to recognize because there can be different symptoms than those in younger people. The symptoms of might be mistaken for normal aging in older adults, and therefore go unacknowledged or underdiagnosed. For example, sadness is typically not the main symptom of depression in older adults. Additionally, they may suffer less apparent signs of depression or maybe less willing to vocalize their feelings. As a consequence, doctors are less likely to recognize depression in older patients. 

According to the National Institute on Aging, “Sometimes older people who are depressed appear to feel tired, have trouble sleeping, or seem grumpy and irritable. Confusion or attention problems caused by depression can sometimes look like Alzheimer’s disease or other brain disorders.” Older adults may also experience more chronic medical conditions, like stroke, heart disease, or cancer. Many of these conditions can produce depressive symptoms as side effects. Or older adults can be taking medications with side effects that can have depressive symptoms. 

More Older Adults Living Alone

Researchers created the Cedars-Sinai study upon recognizing that feelings of loneliness among seniors are a widespread problem. “As the demographics of our country shift, more people are living alone than ever before,” says the study’s leading expert, Allison Moser Mays, MD. “U.S. Adults over 65 are expected to reach more than 70 million by 2030, double what it is now.” Yet even seniors who live with families are often alone all day.

Study of Health Intervention

The study partnered with local community groups, monitoring the progress of senior participants in health management classes across Los Angeles. It focused on areas with a concentration of older, lower-income adults. All locations in the study were accessible for those with disabilities and had opportunities for public transit and parking. 

The study tracked 382 older adult participants ages 52 to 104 when the Coronavirus pandemic forced these health management classes to move online.

Exercise Class

All participants in the study met with a health professional who analyzed their needs and selected one of four courses. In addition, previous studies showed each class effectively improving other aspects of holistic health:

  • Arthritis Exercise
  • Tai Chi
  • Enhanced Fitness
  • Chronic Disease Self-Management

The majority of participants chose one of the three exercise classes, and each individual was required to attend at least one class for participation in the study. 

The Bottom Line: Clear-Cut Results!

After a year’s long-term participation in the classes, the participants completed questionnaires about their perceptions of loneliness and social connectedness. At the end of the study, the study partners found a 3.3% improvement in social connectedness and a 6.9% decrease in loneliness. This was after adjusting results for gender, age, and other demographics. 

“These classes had already been shown to reduce the risk of falls in seniors, and this was the first demonstration that they also reduce social isolation,” Mays said after the conclusion of the study. 

Exercise class reduced social isolation.

Here’s the Best Part! What You Can Do

The benefits of increased social connection for seniors at risk for loneliness cannot be overstated! Home care services can help alleviate some of the isolation issues. Not only the assistance that the helper provides when they come in and assist with meal preparation and light housekeeping (for example), it can be pleasant to have someone around. Here are some other suggestions for what you can do:

Make sure your senior has access to transportation.

Find out about the bus routes, Uber, taxi, etc., and teach yourself or your loved one how to use them. Map out routes from home to desired locations and back. Often residential care will have a bus that will take them to and from shopping or banking on certain days. If your loved one has a home care person, they can help them the first time or two on this task.

Connect to a hobby or volunteer

When caring for my step-dad, we connected him with the senior center in Nampa. He enjoyed having lunch there once a week when he could, and playing cards afterwards. They play bridge and other card games and have volunteer opportunities, though the pandemic may have taken this online. Find information for Boise’s Senior Center in the linked site. Including exercise classes, which they now offer online.

Discuss a Pet

Talk to your senior about a pet. Pet therapy lowers anxiety, blood pressure and many other benefits. Taking care of an animal gives people a sense of direction and purpose. It can definitely offer companionship for your mom or dad if they are willing.

Exercise Classes

And finally, don’t forget to look into exercise classes as this study suggests. Not only do the Senior Centers have classes, but the local gyms do as well. The advantage of being a senior is that during the day, the classes are less crowded! With everything from Gentle Yoga to Silver Sneakers, you will find something right for you at local gyms. You will also find a sense of community at the classes and a feeling that ‘you should go, because people will be expecting you.’

If you would like to learn more about resources for seniors experiencing loneliness, contact Bluebird Health or your local senior center.

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