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Loneliness darkens twilight years

Loneliness darkens twilight years

credit : Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Loneliness darkens twilight years

On a warm day in the late summer, 86-year-old Audrey Brennan sat in a wheelchair in her small St. Francis apartment, trying not to think of the pain pill that was wearing off and the throbbing in her cheek that had to be an abscessed tooth and the crushing anxiety of how she would ever get to the dentist. Who would drive her?

She glanced at the clock on the wall, which said 10:30 a.m., though it was the middle of the afternoon. Not that it mattered. Brennan spends most of the day locked in the silence of her thoughts.

“There’s an expression, ‘my so-called life,'” she said. “That’s about the size of it. I sit here all day. I had 26 cousins, but they’re all dead now. I’m the only one alive. I had dear friends from grade school. As we got married, we lived close together and, would you believe it, I have one friend with Alzheimer’s left. Other than that I’m the only one alive.

“There’s no one I can call up and say, ‘Do you remember when…?’ There’s nobody.”

Audrey Brennan has a son, but he travels frequently for work. She has a daughter, who lives in Illinois and suffers from health problems that make her visits to Milwaukee difficult and infrequent.

So Brennan lives in an elderly apartment complex called Juniper Court, surrounded by neighbors she barely knows, suffering from a condition reckoned by experts to be almost as harmful to human health as smoking: loneliness.

It is a gnawing, unfulfilled hunger for companionship. And although the particulars of Brennan’s story are her own, the general outline is quite common — studies have found the prevalence of loneliness among senior citizens to be about 35% or higher.

Roughly one American in 10 lives alone — a total of 34 million people, according to 2014 census figures. That’s an increase of 87% since 1980. It is also a quarter of the households in the country.

That’s not to say living alone and being lonely are the same. Many elderly people live alone and still maintain active social lives, playing golf and bridge and going to dinner with friends. But the hold they keep on this lifestyle is often more tenuous than they know. A fall. The loss of a driver’s license. A spouse’s long-term illness. Any of these common life events can quickly transform their existence from social to lonely.

And loneliness is a gateway to a host of other health problems. Dozens of medical studies over the last three decades have found that loneliness shortens lives and raises the risk of depression, alcoholism, suicide, Alzheimer’s disease, high blood pressure, poor sleep, eating disorders, cognitive deterioration, stress and other chronic conditions.

One recent study of more than 100,000 people, published in the journal PLoS Medicine, found that air pollution increases a person’s odds of dying earlier by 5%, obesity by 20% and excessive alcohol use by 30%.

Loneliness exceeds them all, raising the odds of an early death by 45%.

“We think of loneliness as a sad condition. But for social species, being on the social perimeter is not only sad, it is dangerous,” University of Chicago loneliness researcher John Cacioppo said in a 2013 TEDx talk in Des Moines.

Humans are not made to be alone. The need for companionship is elemental to our nature — wired into our brains — and its absence, said Cacioppo, “has a lot in common with pain, hunger and thirst.”

While health officials have grown accustomed to the challenges posed by pain, hunger and thirst, isolation is different.

“As a physician, I’m really out of my element. There isn’t a pill. There isn’t an operation for social isolation,” said Edmund Duthie, chief of the division of geriatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

With the average life expectancy of Americans now at 78.8 years — almost 10 years longer than it was in 1960 — and baby boomers now entering their senior years, the societal consequences of loneliness loom larger than ever.

“Social isolation is a huge issue,” said Art Walaszek, a professor in University of Wisconsin-Madison’s department of psychiatry. “The other huge issue is suicide in older adults. After age 65, the suicide rates just skyrocket. They’re much higher than for any other demographic group. And one of the top five risk factors for suicide in older adults is social isolation.”

source : Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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