The Doctor Will See You Now – Post-Holiday Social Isolation Poses Health Risks

By Mykel Kirkpatrick; Community Outreach Coordinator, Optum New Mexico Community Center

Moving into a new year can be challenging, especially when the holidays have ended and we are trying to get back into the swing of our day-to-day lives. This time may be especially difficult for older New Mexicans who may be more susceptible to social isolation and loneliness.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control showed that nearly one-fourth of adults aged 65 and older are socially isolated. Older adults are at an increased risk of social isolation because they are more likely to face factors such as chronic illness, loss of family and friends, and/or may be living alone.

Loneliness and social isolation are serious health threats, particularly to at-risk individuals, such as older adults. Substantial evidence shows that social isolation presents a high risk for premature mortality, comparable to other risk factors such as smoking, high blood pressure, physical inactivity, or obesity. Poor social relationships (characterized by social isolation or loneliness) was associated with a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease, a 32 percent increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of dementia. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicide.

People often find themselves unexpectedly isolated due to factors that include disability or lack of mobility; worsening vision or hearing problems; separation from friends or family; illness or death of a loved one; and lack of access to transportation.

A person may be at even greater risk if they struggle financially; can’t leave their home; are a caregiver for someone else; live alone; have experienced a major loss or life change; have language barriers or experience discrimination in the area they live; are not engaged in meaningful activities or feel a lack of purpose; or have psychological or cognitive challenges, or depression.

All humans need social connection and interaction as part of their survival. However, often as adults age, they begin to spend more time alone making them more vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness. Engaging in activities that are meaningful can boost mood and give people a sense of purpose. In addition to living longer, research demonstrates that productive people seem to improve cognitive function and are better able to maintain their well-being.

Some tips for staying connected include:

  • Learn something new by signing up for a class in your community. The Optum New Mexico Community Center, 4010 Montgomery Blvd. NE, in Albuquerque, offers no-cost classes and social activities Monday-Friday for people 55 and older, including jewelry making, arts and crafts, themed non-alcoholic happy hours, and group fitness classes. For a schedule, visit com/nmcommunitycenters. Many participants turn the classes into social gatherings by going out to lunch with each other either before or after class.
  • Reignite your passion for a hobby you once loved but discontinued.
  • Explore volunteer opportunities.
  • Stay connected with your friends and family in person or through phone calls, email, video chats or social media.
  • Stay physically active, and consider group exercise, such a walking club or working out with a friend.
  • Find a faith-based or spiritual organization where you can engage with others in a meaningful way.
  • If you are able, adopt a pet. Animals can be a source of comfort and may also lower blood pressure and reduce stress.

It is important to discuss feelings of loneliness or isolation with your health care professional.  Addressing these factors may have an impact on helping prevent serious physical and cognitive health problems. Talk about any stressors or major life changes that have occurred, and be open and honest about feelings and health habits. This will help your doctor better understand your medical and emotional health and will allow your provider to make suggestions that may be helpful.

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