Loneliness kills (Sam wonders what we can do)

“Loneliness kills” is the headline  on a new crop of stories about the health impact of loneliness.

The New York Times calls it an epidemic.

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.

“The profound effects of loneliness on health and independence are a critical public health problem,” said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It is no longer medically or ethically acceptable to ignore older adults who feel lonely and marginalized.”

In Britain and the United States, roughly one in three people older than 65 live alone, and in the United States, half of those older than 85 live alone. Studies in both countries show the prevalence of loneliness among people older than 60 ranging from 10 percent to 46 percent.

CBC’s White Coat, Black Art notes that the health impacts of loneliness can equal or surpass that of smoking a, pack of cigarettes a day.

This is not about people who enjoy solitude by choice — it’s about people who spend long periods without social contact.  The effects of that are tangible and they are growing. It’s no surprise that loneliness leads to increased rates of depression and alcohol use.  More surprising is the impact that social isolation has on your physical well-being. According to a study out of  Brigham Young University, loneliness is as damaging to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  It is even more damaging to your to body than obesity and diabetes.  Lonely people are at greater risk of heart attacks.  Loneliness can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 64 per cent.  And if the subject has cancer, then loneliness can increase the risk that the cancer spreads.

When Tracy and I were chatting yesterday about advice we’d to give to people who were just starting out, we wanted to tell people to find a fitness community.I was struck by how many people don’t have someone to exercise with when I read about the man who walks with people for a living.

The Guardian story about him is headlined ‘We need human interaction’: meet the LA man who walks people for a living

Chuck McCarthy recently auditioned as a homicidal biker for a TV show, but the actor is finding glimmers of fame, and possibly a business franchise, with another role: Los Angeles’s first people walker.

He walks humans for $7 a mile around the streets and park near his home, pioneering an alternative to dog walking that requires no leash, just an ability to walk, talk and, above all, listen.

I found the story about him to be intriguing. I’m supervising a PhD student working on questions about what should or shouldn’t be for sale (are there moral limits on the market?) and one of the question that interests me concerns the sale of intimate human relationships (sex is the obvious one, but also too friendship).

I don’t disapprove. He sounds perfectly charming and his rates aren’t even particularly steep.

But what can we do for non LA resident seniors in need of company? Because McCarthy is all about walking, I started thinking of walking clubs. Just show up at a set time each day, walk and talk, tea and coffee after. I’m also a  big fan of co-housing and experiments about cooperative living. Friends know well my fantasy alpaca farm/commune (you know for after the collapse of the universities) which survives of bicycle tourism.

And I’m charmed too by stories about university students taking up rooms in seniors homes. Or preschools and daycares located in seniors facilities.

Gretchen Rubin suggest these 7 strategies to combat loneliness.

But sticking for a moment to physical activity, what other ideas do you have to help older people combat loneliness and get moving?


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