In 2018, Great Britain appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

Why?

According to Scientific American, if you cure loneliness, you may be at a lower risk for:

  • Catching a cold
  • Having a stroke or heart disease
  • Slipping into early cognitive decline
  • Developing depression

However, you may be more likely to:

  • Overcome socioeconomic disadvantages
  • Recover quickly from illness
  • Live longer

Social isolation in the elderly has been linked to vulnerabilities in the health of older people.

In fact, according to a Harvard study that tracked individuals for 75 years, one single factor clearly predicts quality of life, longevity, and health: the number and quality of an individual’s relationships with other people.

Social isolation has been linked to vulnerabilities in the health of older people; loneliness is the likely culprit.

Social isolation and loneliness: what's the difference?

Although it goes without saying that humans are a social species, most of the significant research on loneliness, social isolation and health has emerged only recently, perhaps because the topic is complex, and difficult to study directly.

The first “loneliness scale” was only developed in 1978. A 2015 overview which conducted one of the first comprehensive overviews of literature in this growing field analyzed 128 papers and analyses and found that only half of the academic publications included formal definitions of “loneliness” and “social isolation.”

Yet isolation (once more commonly referred to as “solitude”) and loneliness are different experiences. It is possible to be objectively socially isolated without experiencing loneliness; it is also possible to feel lonely while surrounded by other people—even friends and family.

The National Institute on Aging helps to clarify the criteria according to objective data and subjective feelings and perceptions, helping to explain why some people are seemingly content living alone in a cabin in the woods, while others can feel experience a loud party as isolating.

  • Social isolation: Living the majority of the time without a companion; objective, measurable large amounts of time spent away from and out of contact with other people.
  • Loneliness: Subjective feelings of distress, anxiety, exhaustion, depression, agitation, or upset attributed to or caused social isolation—or by insufficient quantity or quality of existing relationships.

Results suggest between 27% and 55% of how we experience solitude may be the result of our DNA.

So, which causes health problems, especially as we age—social isolation or loneliness?

As it turns out, both.

The National Institute on Aging disseminated research on loneliness and social isolation because of the health effects of alone time on older Americans’ health. Reporting on the role of genetics and socioeconomic status on the physiology and biology of loneliness, NIA reported on a recent Swedish study that looked at twins; the results suggest between 37 and 55% of how we experience solitude may be the result of our DNA.

“Individuals who are not prone genetically to feeling lonely may, for example, suffer much less from social isolation, while others feel lonely even though they are surrounded and part of a rich social life,” according to Nancy Pedersen, Ph.D., a professor of genetic epidemiology at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden.

And those differences among us—in our genes, in our life experiences, in our backgrounds and in our social lives—may begin to explain why some older adults feel lonely more often and more intensely, while others seem not to.

Every seven years, you replace half your friends

Everybody is different, with different levels of tolerance—and different levels of need—for social connection. We form our social networks early, during our teen years, and they keep growing right up until about our mid-twenties, according to academic research. After that, the number of people in an individual social network levels off.

But there’s also good news: Our social connections are never static. In fact, the best news of all in an increasingly connected era is this: One sociological survey of more than 1,000 people found that half of any given person’s friends are replaced—turned over—every seven years.

A healthy, thriving social network is therefore more like a garden than a building—with attention, even long-neglected social networks can come back to life. Luckily, we really never outgrow the ability to make new friends, and that’s great news for everybody.

Can technology help bridge the social isolation/loneliness gap among seniors?

Is there a role for technology in reestablishing healthy human connections across an increasingly atomized, fractured social landscape?

Increasingly, researchers are looking into these questions and finding answers. The AARP surveyed adults over 45 in late 2018 and found that among those —and they are positive. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Angelina Sutin of FSU’s college of medicine, who studies the risk of social isolation, loneliness, and dementia: “Loneliness is a modifiable risk behavior.”

While technology itself is not a direct solution to the need for more face-to-face human contact, it can be a critical intermediary to help find likeminded people, replenish a social network that may be suffering from attrition, and keep it active and engaged.

  1. Find people with similar interests. No matter how obscure or specialized the subject, from urban foraging to the Big Band era, the internet is almost guaranteed to be able to point toward a thriving, active, dedicated community online right now talking about it. Some may live nearby; others may hold online face-to-face discussions through Skype or Google Hangouts; others may be happy to engage in subject-focused chat that helps to form friendships that can turn into real-world friendships—and that’s important. (The AARP survey found that 46% of those who have met “online friends” are less likely to be lonely than those who segregate those friendships and keep them online-only.)
  2. Get a convenient and affordable ride for activities out of the house. If part of the reason for increasing social isolation among seniors is less confidence driving at night or in heavy traffic, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft can lower barriers to getting out and seeing friends at the theater, a coffee shop, a restaurant, or even for a game night at their home.
  3. Play games with friends. Not only are games good for the aging brain; online games like Words with Friends (a familiar-looking game much like Scrabble) let people play in real time against real-life friends gathered from social media and their phone contacts. Some have built-in chat functions, so the experience of online game play is more like sitting across the table from each other, with opportunities for crosstalk, off-topic banter, and “real” conversation between turns.
  4. Virtual education and clubs. While some of the sorts of activities that used to take place in living rooms and around card tables cannot be totally replaced or recreated through technology, others can, in their own fashion. Virtual book clubs, movie clubs, spirituality and religious groups, and even world-class education courses are available in virtual spaces, delivered over phones, tablets, or internet-connected televisions; related discussion groups can provide structured activities that help build trust and respect in relationships.
  5. Follow senior social influencers. People over the age of 50 are out there living extraordinary lives. Every day, they’re learning new skills, trying new hobbies, pushing the boundaries, taking creative risks, traveling, exploring new horizons, visiting new places, meeting new people, tasting new foods, seeing new sights, and meeting new friends. You can follow their adventures on blogs, social media, and through trusted third parties that vet senior social influencers. Let these adventurous spirits serve as inspiration to expand social and experiential circles at any age.

Finally, take heart. Making new friends isn’t rocket science; a study from the University of Kansas suggests adults need spend only about 90 minutes in each other’s presence to become friends initially. (Close friendship is a more time-consuming ballgame; be prepared to invest closer to 200 hours in cultivating a good friend).

The most common thread running through both anecdotal and empirical findings is this: New friends will not come to find you. As The Guardian’sA Guide to Making New Friends as An Adult” put it: “Embarking on friendships as an adult can be terrifying, exciting, rewarding and challenging. Nothing can replace the special connections you have with those who have known you over the years, but taking that leap of faith...can reinvigorate and get the ball rolling...when it comes to making friends, ‘Don’t be afraid of being scared. Do it anyway.’”