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How Social Isolation Can Hurt, and How to Fight It

Studying the health effects of not feeling connected

In this series of videos, Dr. John Cacioppo, Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, discusses recent scientific research into the prevalence of social isolation among the 50+ population, the associated health risks, and successful ways that both individuals and communities can address the issue of isolation.

Learn more about how AARP Foundation addresses isolation.

U.S. population studies over the past 20 to 25 years have shown a dramatic increase in the number of people living alone  — up to a staggering 20 percent of the population. Initial research defined isolated individuals as those who were unmarried, who had infrequent contact with friends and family, and who weren’t involved with voluntary associations. Later findings, however, indicate that the more important predictor of isolation's negative health effects is whether or not a person feels isolated. It’s not necessarily about being isolated; it’s about feeling that you are.

Those health risks are well worth paying attention to. Perceived isolation has been linked to higher blood pressure, more susceptibility to flu and other infectious diseases, loss of impulse control (not being able to resist unhealthy foods or behaviors, for example), and earlier onset of dementia.

What to do about it? There is indeed good news among the grim statistics. Prof. Cacioppo reveals in the last of these videos that people can and do come out of crippling feelings of isolation — if they adopt the right strategies. Too many older Americans try to ignore how isolated they feel; the winning approach is to recognize those feelings as a pain signal, the body's way of saying, Do something about this! And there is much that isolated individuals and existing communities around them can do to remove that pain. It turns out that none of us is really alone in this struggle, and recognizing that fact can be the beginning of the road to a healthier, less isolated life.

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