Loneliness affects around one in every 12 people around the world, regardless of borders or cultural differences.
According to the most recent survey conducted in Europe, up to 13% of respondents said they felt alone most of the time during the four weeks before taking the survey.
If we focus on the specific context of Spain, for example, data from the country’s National Statistics Institute (INE) reveals that more than 2 million people over the age of 65 currently live without a partner.
And the numbers also highlight a significant gender disparity: 44.1% of women over 85 live alone, compared to 24.2% of men.
This circumstance not only harms people’s emotional well-being, but also takes on the characteristics of a public health problem, increasing the risk of mental and cardiovascular diseases.
Two distinct phenomena need to be addressed. On the one hand, there is temporary loneliness, which is a common experience with limited impacts on people’s health and well-being, considering its ephemeral nature.
However, when the situation lasts for a long time, loneliness can become chronic, becoming a major threat to health.
The second point is that loneliness can harm the mental functions of older people. The inherent complexity of this problem lies in the deep connection between the continuous feeling of isolation and the transformations caused to mental functions.
Chain of negative effects
To better understand this relationship, it is necessary to delve deeper into the latest discoveries in neuroscience and psychology.
Recent studies have revealed increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system and reduced regulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for rest and recovery) among older people living alone. And these changes can create obstacles to the brain’s ability to adapt and the generation of new brain cells.
Other research has also found tangible changes to the physical structure of the brain that predispose people to suffer from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other types of dementia. On the other hand, previous studies indicate a greater risk of mild cognitive deterioration and the development of dementia in later life.
And, as if that weren’t enough, the lack of social interactions can impair several cognitive abilities, such as episodic memory, working memory, prolonged attention and cognitive flexibility, in addition to increasing the risk of depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
This set of challenges worsens the cognitive and functional effects usually associated with the aging process.
Traces of the Pandemic in developed countries
Although many causes can lead to loneliness, several risk factors have been identified, such as depression and/or chronic illnesses and old age. The older the age, the greater the possibility of social isolation.
Therefore, everything indicates that the impact of loneliness will increasingly increase, especially in developed countries, as the population ages. And this reason makes it increasingly common to classify loneliness as an Pandemic, which needs to be combatted with public health policies.
Increasing concern about this situation has encouraged the development of community programs designed to encourage social interaction and provide emotional support.
Concrete interventions have already demonstrated their effectiveness, supporting not only the need to reduce the effects of loneliness, but also to strengthen the social fabric of communities. This is how active and healthy aging is promoted.
Quality of life
In summary, loneliness among older people represents a challenge that encompasses numerous aspects and requires responses at individual, community and political levels.
Understanding the underlying neurobiological mechanisms and interrelated effects of loneliness on brain and emotional health is critical to guide the development of strategies to reduce its negative impacts.
By prioritizing loneliness as an important public health issue, we can improve the quality of life of older people around the world. This global commitment is fundamental to fostering connection and personal enrichment throughout the best years of life.
* This article was originally published on the academic news website The Conversation and republished on BBC News Brasil under a Creative Commons license. Read the original Spanish version here.
María Antonia Parra Rizo has a PhD in health psychology from the Miguel Hernández University, in Spain.