How loneliness affects the body
A new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from the Universities of California and Chicago where they asked 141 elderly people to assess their levels of social isolation through a questionnaire.
The study authors then looked at their immune system genes and their correlations with the participants’ self-reported isolation.
They found that in the 26 percent of elderly people who identified themselves as socially isolated, they discovered, the genes for inflammation were more active, while genes that help defend against viral infections were depressed.
So to summarise; this study suggests that people suffering from social isolation (loneliness) could be more prone to infections and less able to fight them off. This research could show why lonely elderly people are more susceptible to illnesses, from dementia to the common cold.
This isn’t the first time that mental health has been directly associated with physical health in an article published last June by CNN they identify that depression is a ‘powerful’ risk factor for heart disease in young women. This study looked at 3,237 patients with suspected or established heart disease who were undergoing coronary angiography - a medical procedure used to diagnose narrowing in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. On the same day of the procedure, the patients answered nine questions assessing their state of mind.
If the patient was experiencing moderate to severe depression and was under 55 years old, researchers found she had double the chance of experiencing a heart attack in the next few years.
Both of these studies are suggesting that the mental health of a person can radically change their health and wellbeing, so what does this mean for the future of our elderly care?
In the U.S there have been programmes implemented in counties that revolve around residents caring for the elderly, a great example of this is one called Veggie Cares that operates in Lyme, New Hampshire where the residents of the town gather up fruits and vegetables from their gardens and distributes them to people living alone, but the gesture doesn’t end there, with their offering of food they also bring the offer of companionship. The residents set off in different directions to visit the most vulnerable and isolated residents to drop off the food and stay for a cup of tea and offer to do things around the house like take out heavy rubbish and replace light bulbs, this is also an efficient way of keeping a track of elderly residents who fall ill.
The UK is not oblivious of the health problems that lie amongst elderly residents who spend a lot of time alone, campaigns to help end loneliness exist but tend to only crop up during the festive season. This is all well and good for that period of time but a more formal structure around elderly care and companionship in the community could benefit UK residents in a number of ways, with happier elders the likelihood of illness decreases thus meaningless NHS beds are being used, not to mention the community morale and sense of belonging.