“Find yourself a teacher, acquire for yourself a friend.”
—Pirkei Avot 1:6
According to the ancient rabbinic tradition, it has been clear that having others around us is necessary for good health and well-being. But, unfortunately, the current pandemic has thrown society into a world of social isolation as physical distancing guidelines are necessary for safety. Especially for older adults, who have accounted for 78% of all coronavirus-related deaths, the need to be alone and to isolate can be a matter of life or death.
Research shows the adverse health impacts of social isolation, defined as the objective absence of social interactions, contacts, and relationships with family and friends. Social isolation, which impacts about 25% of older adults living in the community, can lead to loneliness—a self-reported distressing feeling of being alone or separated. Social isolation and loneliness are different concepts; a person can feel lonely despite being surrounded by others and a person can be by themselves, yet not feel lonely.
Interesting new research finds that loneliness may impact our bodies at a basic cellular level. Work by Dr. Steve Cole at UCLA shows that feelings of loneliness actually change our immune system cells leading to higher levels of inflammation. Over time, this inflammation leads to an increased risk for chronic disease, cancer, and early death. Sadly, a study conducted at Florida State University found that these cellular changes associated with loneliness contribute to a 40% increased risk for dementia. The evidence is clear—to avoid disease and disability and to age well, we all should avoid loneliness and stay engaged to prevent isolation. (See Screening Tool to determine your loneliness.)
Numerous approaches exist to decrease isolation and loneliness that may also improve health. Interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy (offered through CJE Counseling Services) has shown to reduce social isolation. Digital social connection (offered through our Community Engagement Department’s CJE Cyber Club) is another promising intervention to help people stay connected to prevent loneliness, while keeping physically distant. And importantly, physical distancing does not mean you have to stay inside and be sedentary. Going outside for a walk or joining one of CJE’s Zoom and telephone-based exercise classes are fantastic ways to engage and stay active in a physically distant manner to meet the CDC recommendation of 150 minutes of physical activity/exercise each week to maintain physical health.
The message for generations has been clear: we should not be alone! For your best health, engage with family and friends, volunteer and join new online or telephone programs to meet new people and make new connections, and seek out supportive services like counseling or physical activity programming to address loneliness and improve your physical and mental health.
Find Out Where You Rank on the Loneliness Scale
Answer the questions below using the scale provided, then and add up your points.
Higher scores indicate more loneliness and the need to connect with others.