How to beat the loneliness epidemic

1 in 3 people over the age of 65 live alone in the United States, and by age 85 it's 1 in 2. Loneliness is an epidemic. Here's how to fight it.

Old man sitting on a sofa looking out window

In the United States, 1 in 3 people over the age of 65 live alone; by age 85, 1 in 2 people live alone. Those stats come from The New York Times and highlight a health problem we often ignore: loneliness is killing us.

As The Times reports, “Researchers have found mounting evidence linking loneliness to physical illness and to functional and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity." A 2012 JAMA study confirmed these results, citing that “among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death."

A 2015 study in the journal Cell demonstrated these effects with mice. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Imperial College, London split mice into three groups: solitary, solitary with an object, and grouped. They observed the dorsal raphe nucleus (D.R.N.) region of the brain, a section often linked to depression, with each group. When mice were part of the group dopamine production was stable, meaning that because dopamine is a neurotransmitter that pumps feel-good chemicals into our brains when we're happy, these mice were content in a group. But when the mice were isolated either on their own or with an object, dopamine levels plummeted. Most interestingly, dopamine levels surged when the mice were reunited with the group, most likely compensating for the earlier lull. "This is the first time we've found a cellular substrate for this experience," said Dr. Kay Tye, senior author of the paper, to The Times. "And we saw the change after only 24 hours of isolation."

Loneliness even affects key bodily functions. Professor John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago (and Big Think alumnus) has researched this, and The Times details his findings: “Chronic loneliness… is associated with increased levels of cortisol, a major stress hormone, as well as higher vascular resistance, which can raise blood pressure and decrease blood flow to vital organs… [and] the danger signals activated in the brain by loneliness affect the production of white blood cells; this can impair the immune system's ability to fight infections." He told Big Think more about those effects here:

The best way to counter this, of course, is to spend time with friends. But it's harder to make friends now. We've told you about this before, but social media makes it harder to build friendships. As that piece explains, “With social media, we can easily keep up with the lives and interests of far more than a hundred and fifty people. But without investing the face-to-face time, we lack deeper connections to them, and the time we invest in superficial relationships comes at the expense of more profound ones."

A 2013 meta-analysis in Psychological Bulletin backs this up, stating:

  • Global social networks (which include your family, friends, coworkers, business acquaintances, and so on) increased up until young adulthood and then decreased steadily.

  • Personal and friendship networks (which include just family members, close friends, and other close confidants) decreased throughout adulthood.

  • The family network was stable in size from adolescence to old age.

  • Other networks, with coworkers or neighbors, were important only in specific age ranges.

  • The number of close friends we have peaks in our 20s and then steadily declines.

    Those difficulties in making and keeping friendships seem to be linked to the loneliness epidemic. But you don't have to take them lying down. You can strengthen your current friendships by focusing on the ones that make you a better person. It's not easy; even William Shatner had trouble making friends – but he had Leonard Nimoy to help him:

    You may not have Leonard Nimoy, but you can still have great friendships. If you're struggling to keep in touch with friends, consider blocking off a chunk of time every week to make calls or scheduling a recurring date for a specific day of the month. If you're having difficulties making friends, Lifehacker has a whole bunch of tips to help you, including:

  • Checkout Meetup.com for anything you want to do, from art classes and poetry readings to wine tastings and disco parties. Pick one and go!

  • Use Groupon or LivingSocial to find good deals on events and go meet people

  • Volunteer

  • Walk a dog (it can be your neighbor's; that way you get to meet new people and make friends with your neighbor. Win-win!)

  • Join a sports league

    Regardless of how you strengthen your friendships, make it a priority. You're doing your future self a favor and helping to end the loneliness epidemic. You should also call your grandmother right now, or go visit an old person in your community. They'd love to hear from you. Really.

    ‘Designer baby’ book trilogy explores the moral dilemmas humans may soon create

    How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.

    Surprising Science
    • A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
    • It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
    • While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
    Keep reading Show less

    Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

    The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

    A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

    SJADE 2018
    Surprising Science
    • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
    • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
    • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
    Keep reading Show less

    These are the world’s greatest threats in 2021

    We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.

    Luis Ascui/Getty Images
    Politics & Current Affairs

    Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.

    Keep reading Show less

    Columbia study finds new way to extract energy from black holes

    A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.

    Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
    Surprising Science
    • In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
    • A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
    • The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
    Keep reading Show less
    Mind & Brain

    A psychiatric diagnosis can be more than an unkind ‘label’

    A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast