The Deadly Consequences of Loneliness


"Does anyone else out there feel lonely and isolated since beginning to care for their parents?"

"I feel lonely, scared and trapped—help!"

Perhaps it's because caregivers are, by and large, a selfless bunch and burdening other people with their problems is not their M.O. Maybe it's that there are so many intimate and embarrassing aspects of looking after an elderly loved one, that sharing with others seems crass or akin to a betrayal of a family member's dignity. Or, it could simply be that family caregivers feel too busy or stressed to connect with other people.

Whatever the reason, loneliness and caregiving often go hand-in-hand. The onset of isolation can be insidiously incremental—as your loved one's needs demand more and more of your time, you begin to see less and less of friends and family. Until, one day, you realize that your social life has deteriorated along with your loved one's health.

The problem is that, in addition to exacting an extreme emotional toll, loneliness can carry dangerous—even deadly—physical consequences.

What loneliness does to your body

Feeling isolated from others is twice as deadly as being obese, and is nearly as detrimental to your health as being poor, according to a recent presentation by University of Chicago psychologist, John Cacioppo, at the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

After analyzing the survey responses of over 2,100 adults age 55 and over, Cacioppo and his team concluded that lacking close personal connections raises an individual's premature death risk by 14 percent, while lacking financial means increases these odds by 19 percent.

The bump in death risk that accompanies loneliness can be attributed to the array of biological responses that occur in a person's body when they feel alone: elevated blood pressure, increased inflammatory response, interrupted sleep, higher morning levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, and intensified symptoms of depression.

Why being alone hurts so much

During a 2013 talk at the TEDxDesMoines Conference, Cacioppo delved into the evolutionary explanations behind the negative health effects of social isolation.

"We think of loneliness as a sad condition but, for a social species, being on the social perimeter is not only sad—it's dangerous," he says. "The pain and averseness of loneliness, of feeling isolated from those around you, is also part of a biological early warning machinery to alert you to threats and damage to your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper."

For millennia, humans relied on the collective intelligence and strength of a group to defend against predators and forage for food. Just as low blood sugar triggers a hunger response and tissue damage triggers a pain response, so too does loneliness trigger an unconscious biochemical response, compelling us to sate our "hunger" for human connection.

Trouble finding true connection

Loneliness in the elderly is increasingly recognized as a serious, but often fixable problem. Both caregivers and their loved ones are at risk for feeling lonely for a variety of reasons.

The stigma and memory loss of dementia makes it increasingly difficult for a person with cognitive impairment to connect to those around them. The dual-edged nature of this all-too-familiar scenario is that that individual's family members will also feel the sting of isolation as their loved one mentally drifts further away from them.

Moving to another area to be closer to family, or moving into a senior living facility can also create isolation issues if an elder is forced to leave behind friends and a community they've lived in for years.

3 keys to real relationships

Creating (or rekindling) true connections with other people is a time-consuming, yet necessary, challenge for seniors and caregivers alike.

While there's no clear road map for developing and maintaining solid interpersonal bonds, Cacioppo and his team pinpointed three essential elements of healthy relationships:

Intimate connectedness: A feeling caused by socializing with people with whom you can be your true self, confident that they will always support you—engaging in a deep discussion with a significant other, or having honest communication with elderly parents.

Relational connectedness: In-person interactions that are mutually beneficial to all parties involved—a Sunday morning coffee date with a good friend.

Collective connectedness: Feeling as though one is part of a larger group beyond just one's individual self—being a member of a local softball team.

Human beings all need a combination of these three elements to combat the ever-present threat of loneliness, but cultivating relationships while caregiving can be challenging.

How have you dealt with feelings of isolation while caring for your loved one? What is the greatest barrier that caregivers face when trying to fend off loneliness?

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I agree that caregiving can cause us to feel lonely. I have not had time in this past year to hang out with friends or even talk to them on the phone. My husband and I don't go out much either. We used to go out with friends, have friends over and go visit friends. Since my mom is getting worse, we rarely do anything. I always feel guilty doing for myself and my family because she is alone. Even though she has a caregiver that comes in a few days a week, I still feel guilty. Therefore, making myself lonely and isolated from my life. I am missing my time with my friends and starting to feel depressed. My mom depends way too much on me. She is planning on moving to an ALF and now is having reserves about it. I have to turn off my phone sometimes because she will call me 5x in a row. then I feel guilty doing that. I am tired of the isolation. I want my life back before my health starts going down.
This article was helpful. I have superficial relationships with my mother, brother and sister. How do you establish "deeper" relationships? i am also getting over the trauma of not being able to visit my nieces and nephews for 15 years. I can talk with my brother and sister regareding Mom's care but that's about it. This hurts. It is hard to take rejection from one's own biological family but i have friends not connected with my family, and more geographically distant relatives who are supportive. Any suggestions?
Valid article. Used to be I had friendships that were on an equal footing. No time or mental energy for those relationships any more. Barely enough time to care for 3 needy people and the resultant financial responsibilities. Others tend to see me as a resource, not a friend. Like they say in Washington DC, if you want a friend, get a (companion-type) dog. Yes, more responsibility, but at least they live in the 'now' and love to cuddle.