Have you tried any of these natural ways to combat depression?

St. John's Wort capsulesOctober 11 is National Depression Screening Day. If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning because you don’t want to face the world it’s time to evaluate your emotional health. You can take an anonymous screening online here: Select a state to find a screening.

If you are suicidal please call the national suicide prevention lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.  The Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.


If you have mild to moderate depression, there are a number of proven natural supplements and modalities that can help.

While I cared for my husband who had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease, I lived behind a persona of forced cheerfulness because I didn’t want anyone to know that my private world was being deconstructed bit by bit. I went through bouts of depression and grieving periods. I took the supplement St. John’s wort, danced and meditated. I met with girlfriends and did yoga. I also used essential oils and tried to eat well. It all helped.

I gave St John’s wort to my husband, too, until he was in late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. By then he needed a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. But the St. John’s wort worked well for mild to moderate depression.

  1. Here’s what we know about St. John’s wort
  • It is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time
  • Is similarly effective as standard antidepressants
  • It has minimal side effects when compared to standard antidepressants

One study done on laboratory animals found that St, John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum) has antidepressant properties similar to standard antidepressants. The antidepressant profile of H. perforatum is closely related to the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors class of antidepressants.

A Swiss study evaluated 440 patients suffering from mild to moderate depression and treated them with 500 mg. of St. John’s wort for up to one year. Although mild side effects such as upset stomach were reported—which may or may NOT have been related to the treatment—the researchers reported that is a safe and effective way to treat mild to moderate depression over long periods of time. They also found that it is especially suitable for preventing a relapse.

A meta-analysis at the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research, Technische Universitaet Muenchen, Munich, Germany analyzed 29 trials (which included 5,489 patients), comparing St. John’s wort with placebo or standard antidepressants. The evidence suggests that the hypericum extracts tested in the included trials a) are superior to placebo in patients with major depression; b) are similarly effective as standard antidepressants; c) and have fewer side effects than standard antidepressants.

2. Support serotonin levels. Omega 3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. Your brain is 60% fat and depends on the fat you ingest from food. Healthy fats found in cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, and in olive oil, walnuts, flax and avocado will improve your mood. It is important to cook with a healthy fat such as olive oil, walnut or avocado in order to feed your brain! Canola oil, peanut oil, and safflower are not able to provide you with the fat your brain needs.

As a nutrition educator, I also like to recommend foods that increase the “happy” neurotransmitter serotonin. Whole grains, sweet potatoes, brown rice, oatmeal, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, support your brain’s ability to process more serotonin.

3. Drink water. Your brain needs to stay hydrated. Make sure you drink at least six tall glasses of water every day. When my mom went into the hospital for severe dehydration, among other things, she began hallucinating. A psychiatrist called to tell me “your mom has full-blown dementia.” I said, “No she doesn’t,”  and refused to allow the doctor to prescribe an anti-psychotic prescription. Sure enough, several days later my mom sounded completely normal. Her body had been dehydrated, as well as her brain. The simple habit of drinking water is sometimes all we need to maintain mood and mental health.

4. The Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments published a report in the “Canadian Journal of Psychiatry” in 2016 with this conclusion: For the management of mild to moderate depression it says exercise, light therapy, St. John’s wort, omega-3 fatty acids, SAM-e, and yoga are recommended as first- or second-line treatments.

5. A recently published study in the “Journal of Clinical Medicine” concluded that individuals who engaged in a meditative movement practice of Tai Chi, Qigong, or Yoga showed significantly improved treatment remission rates. The researchers conclude that emphasizing the therapeutic effects of meditative movements for treating MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) is critical because it may provide a useful alternative to existing mainstream treatments (drug therapy and psychotherapy) for MDD. Given the fact that meditative movements are safe and easily accessible, clinicians may consider recommending meditative movements for symptomatic management in this population.

6. Music is the universal language as well as one of the most common ways to affect mood.  My husband was never without head phones as he listened to music and wandered through the halls of the memory care home where he lived the last two years of his life. Music made him happy. It makes toddlers spin until they’re dizzy, teens hand bang until their necks get sore, and adults drum their car’s steering wheel. Music also helps decrease anxiety and improves functioning of depressed individuals as found in a meta-analysis that concluded music therapy provides short-term beneficial effects for people with depression. 

Other natural ways to combat depression

7. Create a calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.

8. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.

9. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn

10. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.

11. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.

12. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

“Surround yourself with people who are only going to lift you higher.” anonymous


 

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Do you have any of these risk factors for Alzheimers?

Woman with hypertension treating by a nurse

  1. Dizziness when standing up
  2. Reduced levels of plasmalogens
  3. High blood pressure
  4. Obesity
  5. Alcohol
  6. Head trauma
  7. Family history
  8. Smoking
  9. Age
  10. Social Isolation (see Loneliness vs. Aloneness: Why one is dangerous to your health

Most people know that old age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, after age 65 the risk of Alzheimer’s doubles every five years. And after age 85 one out of three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia. You’ve probably also heard that obesity, alcohol consumption, head trauma, family history, smoking, and social isolation put you at increase risk.

But here are a few risk factors that you may not have heard about.

Dizziness when standing up

A new risk factor, and a concern for me personally, is orthostatic hypotension (OH), a fancy name for feeling  dizzy when you stand up. According to a new study, middle-aged people who experience orthostatic hypotension may have a higher risk of developing dementia later in life. The study analyzed data from 11,709 participants without a history of coronary heart disease or stroke. It concluded that individuals who experience a drop in systolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of at least 20 mm Hg or a drop in diastolic blood pressure (the top number) of at least 10 mm Hg on standing are said to have orthostatic hypotension.

Over a 25-year period, 1,068 participants developed dementia and 842 had an ischemic stroke. Compared to persons without OH at baseline, those with OH had a higher risk of dementia and ischemic stroke. Persons with OH had greater, although insignificant, cognitive decline over 20 years. But since the study doesn’t take any other risk factors into consideration, I’m not going to lose sleep over this.

2. We’ve heard how omega 3 fatty acids are necessary for a healthy cardiovascular system. But if your liver doesn’t process these key lipids properly it can spell trouble in your brain.

Reduced levels of plasmalogens — a class of lipids created in the liver that are integral to cell membranes in the brain — are associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease, according to new research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2018 by Mitchel A. Kling, MD, an associate professor of Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A reduced level is also implicated in Down’s Syndrome and Parkinson’s disease.

In 2012, scientists found a 40% reduction in plasmalogen content of white matter in the brain in individuals with early stage Alzheimer’s.

Plasmalogens are created in the liver and are dispersed through the blood stream in the form of lipoproteins, which also transport cholesterol and other lipids to and from cells and tissues throughout the body, including the brain. The researchers measured several plasmalogens including those containing omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), as well as an omega-6 fatty acid and closely-related non-plasmalogen lipids, in blood-based fluids collected from two groups. The first group included 1,547 subjects that have Alzheimer’s disease, MCI or significant memory concerns (SMC), and subjects who were cognitively normal (CN) and who are enrolled in the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. The second group included 112 subjects from the Penn Memory Center, including those with Alzheimer’s, MCI, and CN.

“Our findings provide renewed hope for the creation of new treatment and prevention approaches for Alzheimer’s disease,” Kling said. “Moving forward, we’re examining the connections between plasmalogens, other lipids, and cognition, in addition to gene expression in the liver and the brain. While we’re in the early stages of discovering how the liver, lipids, and diet are related to Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration, it’s been promising.”



You would think that taking omega 3s would help, right? Well, according to the study, they don’t. However, plasmalogens from mussels are being sold in Japan and Singapore as a health supplement for Alzheimer’s disease. See Scallop-derived PLASMALOGEN. There is also a Singapore product for sale in the U.S. that supposedly helps your body increase the level of plasmalogens. It’s called NeuroREGAIN. You can read about it here: NeuroREGAIN

According to the first study cited, these products don’t help because of the pH in the
digestive system and the ability to utilize the ingredients.
But it’s up to you. I tried lots of things with my husband, and if he were still alive I’d probably try this product, too.


3. Recently, researchers from the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, IL, set up a study funded by the National Institutes of Health to look for links between blood pressure and physical markers of brain health in older adults. The findings are published in the July 11, 2018, online issue of Neurology. Study co-author Dr. Zoe Arvanitakis explains the types of pathology they were searching for.

“We researched whether blood pressure in later life was associated with signs of brain aging that include plaques and tangles linked to Alzheimer’s disease, and brain lesions called infarcts, areas of dead tissue caused by a blockage of the blood supply, which can increase with age, often go undetected and can lead to stroke, said Arvanitakis.”

Healthy blood pressure is less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg). The higher number is called systolic blood pressure, the pressure in the blood vessels when the heart beats. The lower number is called diastolic blood pressure, the pressure when the heart is at rest.

For the study, 1,288 older people were followed until they died, which was an average of eight years later. The average age at death was 89 years. Blood pressure was documented yearly for each participant and autopsies were conducted on their brains after death. The average systolic blood pressure for those enrolled in the study was 134 mmHg and the average diastolic blood pressure was 71 mmHg. Two-thirds of the participants had a history of high blood pressure, and 87 percent were taking high blood pressure medication. A total of 48 percent of the participants had one or more brain infarct lesions.

Researchers found that the risk of brain lesions was higher in people with higher average systolic blood pressure across the years. For a person with one standard deviation above the average systolic blood pressure, for example 147 mmHg versus 134 mmHg, there was a 46 percent increased risk of having one or more brain lesions, specifically infarcts. For comparison, the effect of an increase by one standard deviation on the risk of having one or more brain infarcts was the equivalent of nine years of brain aging.

Those with one standard deviation above the average systolic blood pressure also had a 46 percent greater chance of having large lesions and a 36 percent greater risk of very small lesions. Arvanitakis noted that an important additional result of the study was that people with a declining systolic blood pressure also had an increased risk of one or more brain lesions, so it was not just the level but also the declining blood pressure which was associated with brain lesions.

Separately, higher average diastolic blood pressure was also related to brain infarct lesions. People who had an increase of one standard deviation from an average diastolic blood pressure, for example from 71 mmHg to 79 mmHg, had a 28 percent greater risk of one or more brain lesions.

The results did not change when researchers controlled for other factors that could affect the risk of brain lesions, such as whether they used high blood pressure drugs.

When looking for signs of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain at autopsy, researchers found a link between higher average late-life systolic blood pressure across the years before death and a higher number of tangles, but not plaques. Arvanitakis said this link is difficult to interpret and will need more research.

 The bottom line is be aware of your blood pressure and how to maintain healthy levels.

Natural remedies to support healthy blood pressure and circulation:

  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Vitamin B complex
  • Vitamin C
  • CoQ10
  • Resveratrol
  • Astaxanthin
  • Nattokinase
  • Pomegranate
  • Acetyl-L-carnitine

A healthy heart supports a healthy brain. Here are 12 ways to support both.

12 ways to support a healthy heart

  1. Eat a nutritious, high-fiber, low-fat heart healthy diet.
  2. Include foods high in phytonutrients (the nutrients found in plants)
  3. Get plenty of foods containing omega-3 fatty acids (found in cold water fish). Vegetarians should take flax-seed oil or ground flax seed.
  4. Take nutritional supplements proven to support a healthy heart
  5. Practice a stress reduction technique such as yoga or meditation
  6. Exercise
  7. Stop smoking!
  8. Reduce and/or avoid alcohol
  9. Get an annual physical exam to rule out other health factor risks
  10. Protect yourself from environmental toxins
  11. Drink 6 to 8 glasses of purified, filtered water every day
  12. Get plenty of restful sleep!

 

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Helpin order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Can depression be a sign of dementia?

Depressed Senior Woman Sitting OutsideDepression can affect our memory, and it can result from not being able to do the things that were once easy for us, as in the case of Alzheimer’s or dementia. Depression can result from a number of factors and it often appears differently in different people

Some people are able to hide the fact that they are terribly depressed. I did. I tried to put on a happy face during my husband’s illness, but inside I often felt as though I was dying. Following the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, we have to remind ourselves that we usually don’t know what is happening inside someone else’s head.

Before my husband was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease he was withdrawn and depressed. I didn’t know what exactly what was going on, and he was unable to articulate how he felt. I eventually realized that he was depressed because the things that were once effortless for him to do, such as driving around town or figuring out how much tip to leave in a restaurant, had become difficult.

Alzheimer’s and depression often occur simultaneously, which often makes it difficult for physicians to make a diagnosis without further testing. According to James M. Ellison, MD of the Swank Memory Care Center, Christiana Care Health System, approximately half of individuals affected by Alzheimer’s disease will experience clinically significant depressive symptoms at some point.  Depression can occur during any phase of the illness.

Symptoms common to Alzheimer’s and depression

  • Loss of interest in things that were once enjoyable
  • Memory issues
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Impaired concentration
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Crying, feelings of hopelessness, despair
  • Unmotivated
  • Lack of energy, lethargy, apathy
  • Irritability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

A case of the chicken or the egg: which came first, Alzheimer’s or depression?

Some health professionals think that depression can put one at greater risk for Alzheimer’s. There is also a belief that depression is a symptom of Alzheimer’s. In any case, physicians feel that a person with dementia who is depressed can experience a quicker cognitive decline and need to rely more on caregivers.

What to do?

8 natural ways to combat depression.

Antidepressants may not work as well with people who have Alzheimer’s and are depressed. Before resorting to antidepressants and other drugs,  try these options:

  1. Provide a safe and calm environment. Light candles at dinner, play classical music, have a vase of fresh flowers on the table.
  2. Get some physical exercise every day; even just a 20 minute walk helps tremendously.
  3. Use aromatherapy oils. For more information about the use of aromatherapy to reduce stress, improve immunity, reduce agitation, and to promote relaxation read chapter 18 “Aromatherapy” in “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn
  4.  I gave my husband Ginkgo biloba for depression (and also took it myself). It helped right up until he was in late stage Alzheimer’s. One word of advice, not all brands are efficacious, so pick one carefully. Also note that it takes about 6 weeks to notice an effect. This is a typical difference of taking a pharmaceutical versus a natural remedy.
  5. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  6. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  7. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship,  hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.
  8. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. Studies have indicated that sleep deprivation can increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

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Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

6 surprising ways to increase your chances of living a healthy longer life

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Ponce de Leon claimed to have discovered the Fountain of Youth in Florida. I’ve been to Warm Mineral Springs, in North Port, Florida, which lays claim to de Leon’s discovery and calls itself the Fountain of Youth. Another natural spring in northwest Florida in Ponce de Leon springs State Park also calls itself the Fountain of Youth. I am a frequent visitor to hot springs (see my article on AAA’s Encompass website: ) and I feel refreshed and rejuvenated after soaking for several hours. But I need something stronger than a dose of calcium carbonate or sulphur to slow down the ticking of the clock, as far as my skin, muscles and cells are concerned.

I’ve asked myself and my guess is that you have also pondered the age-old question “would you want to live forever?”  The children’s book “Tuck Everlasting” by Natalie Babbitt explores the concept of immortality and explores whether living forever is as desirable as it may appear to be.

The typical response is only if I could stay healthy and vibrant. In our life time we will most likely not attain immortality, but there are a number of anti-aging tricks for slowing down the clock.

Age defying nutrients

  1. Study finds link between high EPA and DHA Omega-3 blood levels and decreased risk of death  Higher Omega-3 levels are linked to longer life. In a 15-year study of 6,500 elderly women, those with the highest blood concentration of omega-3 fatty acids were 20 percent less likely to die from any cause compared to those with the lowest levels. The researchers estimated that intakes of about 1 gram per day of EPA and DHA would be enough for a woman with the lowest blood serum concentration to shift to the group with the highest concentration. How? By taking one to three soft-gels of a high-quality omega-3 supplement daily or one teaspoon of a liquid supplement. Another option is to eat two or three salmon fillets each week.
  2. Study Finds Association Between Eating Hot Peppers And Decreased Mortality  If you like hot chile peppers eat more of them! After studying more than 16,000 adults, researchers at the University of Vermont found that those who ate chili peppers had a lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke. The study did not indicate the quantity of peppers consumed, but capsaicin, the active ingredient that makes peppers “hot” aids in preventing obesity, supports blood flow, reduces inflammation and has antimicrobial properties.
  3. Beans, beans the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you toot. There’s another reason to eat beans. They contain phytates, nutritional compounds that strengthen the immune system and kill cancer cells. They also support brain health and are said to reverse the aging process at the cellular level. Beans are also high in fiber which helps lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.
  4. Two studies found that those with higher levels of vitamin D have longer telomeres, and thus may actually age more slowly than people with low vitamin D levels. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes. A good analogy is that they are like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. Without the coating, shoelaces become frayed until they can no longer do their job.  Similarly, without telomeres DNA strands become damaged and then cells can’t do their job.  A study that included 4,347 participants in which 47% were men and 42% were women, researchers concluded that there is positive association between vitamin D levels and telomere length. This means that people with higher levels of vitamin D may actually age more slowly than people with lower levels of vitamin D. Vitamin D reduces the effects of chronic inflammation and may play a role in protecting your body from deteriorating from diseases associated with aging.The association of telomere length and serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels in US adults: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
  5. The traditional diet in Okinawa is anchored by root vegetables, especially sweet potatoes, green and yellow vegetables, soybean-based foods, and medicinal plants. Another feature of the Okinawan diet is the consumption of green tea. There have been more than 1000 studies done on the antioxidants found in green tea, demonstrating how they may be providing some level of chemoprevention in prostate and breast cancer. Green tea has also been shown to help reduce cardiovascular disease. Drink green tea for health and relaxation

    Many characteristics of the traditional Okinawan diet are shared with other healthy dietary patterns, including the traditional Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and Portfolio diet. All these dietary patterns are associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, among other age-associated diseases. Overall, the important shared features of these healthy dietary patterns include: high intake of unrefined carbohydrates, moderate protein intake with emphasis on vegetables/legumes, fish, and lean meats as sources, and a healthy fat profile (higher in mono/polyunsaturated fats, lower in saturated fat; rich in omega-3). The healthy fat intake is likely one mechanism for reducing inflammation, optimizing cholesterol, and other risk factors. Additionally, the lower caloric density of plant-rich diets results in lower caloric intake with concomitant high intake of phytonutrients and antioxidants. Other shared features include low glycemic load, less inflammation and oxidative stress, and potential modulation of aging-related biological pathways. This may reduce risk for chronic age-associated diseases and promote healthy aging and longevity.

    Social interaction is important

     

  6.  Dan Buettler, author of The Blue Zones of Happiness: Lessons From the World’s Happiest People, Oct 3, 2017 researched communities around the world to find out what centenarians had in common. These amazing people had one thing in common: strong social relationships. Being socially connected actually helps you to live longer! Studies are showing that loneliness might be a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity. In fact, loneliness and social isolation is considered not just a psychological issue but a medical one that can actually kill you. According to a far-reaching study (meta-analysis of scientific literature on the subject January 1980 to February 2014) conducted by Brigham Young University, social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes and drinking six ounces of alcohol a day, and increases one’s likelihood of death by 32%. Isolation and feeling alone has also been shown to contribute to depression, cognitive decline, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and poor recovery from illness and surgery.

If you are feeling a lonely or isolated, get ahead of the lonely curve now to expand your social network. Don’t put it off. Getting socially connected might take some effort, but it is definitely worth it for so many reasons. You will gain friendship, companionship, better health, and in the process you will be giving of yourself, which is the best gift of all.


“Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on Amazon.


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7 “mistakes” you’re making as a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s and what to do about it.

Helping hands, care for the elderly concept

If you’re like most caregivers you are tired, stressed, and some days just can’t wait to crawl into bed. Are you taking care of yourself? Are you getting enough rest? Do you have the support you need? Are you listening carefully to the person you lovingly care for? Here’s a quick check-list for assessing how well you are caring for yourself and your loved one.

  1. Are you eating a poor breakfast or skipping breakfast? It is so important to begin the day with a nourishing meal. This is true for everyone, but especially important for caregivers. It’s recommended that we eat within one hour after waking to stabilize our blood sugar—which has dropped during sleep—so that your mood stays even and you can perform at your best.  If not, you’ll be more apt to reach for a bagel or doughnut or another cup of coffee. After loading up on carbs and empty calories, it’s typical to feel hungry again within a couple of hours. And every time our blood sugar crashes, it’s a signal to the body to store calories. The same goes for a hungry body. If you don’t eat breakfast, your blood sugar will be low, and this too is a signal to the body to store calories, which adds fat around your middle. And, of course, the same applies to the person you care for.

Breakfasts of Champions

Instead of eating a bowl of corn flakes with a banana and low-fat milk, have a 2-egg omelet, slice of whole grain toast, a cup of fresh fruit and a cup of steamed greens such as kale. Then notice the difference in how you feel. You’ll have more stamina, less anxiety and depression, and will able to get through the whole day more easily.

Other ideas

  • Whole-grain mini-quiche with 1/2 cup berries
  • Oatmeal with prunes or raisins, walnuts or almonds, and cinnamon, whole milk
  • Multigrain hot cereal, Greek yoghurt and fresh fruit, almonds
  • Eggs with beans, salsa, and a side of greens
  • Bagel with hummus, tomato and goat cheese
  • Smoothie with greens, fruit, protein and flax

2. Do you say “Remember when . . . .or, I told you already . . .”

People with dementia typically do not remember what they said a few minutes ago. If your loved one repeats the same question over and over again, try not to get annoyed. Instead of reminding the person that they forgot what you told them a second ago rephrase it, breaking it down into a simple sentence . . . or completely change the subject.

If you reminisce about something instead of saying, “Remember when we were kids and we’d ride around the neighborhood on our bikes, etc.” tell the story: “You had a red bike and I had a blue bike and we loved to ride through the woods on the bike path, etc.”

If he or she asks about a spouse or parent who has passed away, change the subject to something like this: “Mom and Dad met in New York City at a dance, etc.” If the person keeps asking when he or she can go “home” ask the person to tell you about “home.” You might have to distract your loved one by taking a walk, listening to music, looking at pictures in a book or magazine. Saying “You are already home,” probably will not work.

3. Unusual irritability or anger can be the sign of a UTI or other physical ailment that requires attention. Acting out or acting differently than what is the person’s usual behavior can be a cry for help, especially if the person is non-verbal. Make an appointment to see a doctor to rule out anything suspicious.

4. How well are you sleeping? There are plenty of studies linking poor sleep to a host of physical and psychological ailments: poor immunity, elevated levels of cortisol and insulin, weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. And irritability, foggy thinking and anxiety, depression and low energy can directly impact your ability to care for another person, do household chores and get in the way of your interpersonal relationships. Good sleep hygiene is the first step to improving your sleep. Click here to read a list of things to try when you are stressed, your mind is on overload, or when you’ve just had too much stimulation and can’t fall asleep or stay asleep.

5. Are you and/or your loved one lonely? Caregiving can isolate us from our friends and family.  You may feel that your social network has disappeared or that your friends have “jumped ship.” This may also be true for the person you care for. Set up times for family and friends to visit or take your loved one on an outing. And don’t be afraid to ask your own friends for support. Find respite care and set up a lunch date with a friend. It’s vital to have social interaction for your mental, physical and emotional health.

6. Is there adequate lighting in the home where your loved one lives? People with dementia can become fearful because they don’t see things spatially the same way we do. Their sense of space is distorted and their vision gets skewed, not because there is something physically wrong with their eyes. But rather, the brain interprets what the eyes see, and when the brain doesn’t work right our perception gets distorted. Two things you can do to help are to put extra lights in dark areas of the living quarters and remove throw rugs in order to reduce falls.

7. Are you and your loved adequately hydrated? Drink at least 6-8 glasses of water each day to keep your body hydrated and to flush out toxins. The brain is 70% water when fully hydrated. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking. The same goes for your loved one. Memory is much improved when the brain is hydrated. Seniors often lose the signal that they are thirsty and dehydration can be a serious problem for the frail and elderly. If your loved one lives in a memory care home or nursing home, make sure water is provided throughout the day–not just that it is available but that it is offered.


Caregiving is probably the hardest thing you will ever do. You are doing the best that you can, but please remember to take care of yourself.

For more information on how you can reduce stress and boost your happiness and health, read Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

 

Is it forgetfulness, dementia or Alzheimer’s?

Senior Woman Comforting Depressed Husband Sitting On Bench

At one time or another, most of us have forgotten where we put our keys, our phone, glasses, or even parked our car. Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in? Sure. Run into an acquaintance and forgotten the person’s name? Yes, and it’s embarrassing.

It doesn’t mean you have dementia or Alzheimer’s. I call memory blips “brain farts.” They become more common as we age because our brains form fewer connections so the memory is not as strong as it once was. Also, the speed at which our brain processes stored facts, figures and names becomes slower. Recall becomes slower. (One trick I have for bringing up a person’s forgotten name is to go through the alphabet. It almost always works.)

Forgetfulness can be a normal part of the aging process, or it could be triggered by these physical conditions:

  • insomnia, or lack of sleep (for help in this area read 16 ways to sleep better)
  • thyroid condition
  • drug interactions
  • too much caffeine and/or alcohol
  • stress (Read 16 Stress busters)
  • vitamin B12 deficiency
  • UTIs –urinary tract infections
  • dehydration (please remember to drink at least 6 glasses of water every day)
  • depression and/or mood disorders

The best way to rule out memory problems is to have a full physical exam including a blood panel. Please make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your concerns. Sometimes a memory issue can be cleared up by just getting more sleep or by taking a vitamin B complex supplement.

But if you find yourself putting your keys or your phone in strange places like the refrigerator, getting lost in the city you’ve lived in for decades, or forgetting how to scramble your eggs, this could be indicative of a more serious problem.

Dementia or Alzheimer’s? 

Dementia is the name for an umbrella of  brain disorders with the primary symptoms being memory loss, inability to think clearly or to express oneself, difficulty making decisions and solving problems, and trouble controlling emotions. The term dementia usually refers to degenerative conditions of the brain that result from trauma, as in the brain injuries found in athletes, but more commonly it is used to refer to conditions related to a disease.

Dementia is a major symptom of these diseases:

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurocognitive disorder and affects almost 6 million Americans. The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to nearly triple over the next generation. In the early stage of the disease, people with the disease will find it difficult to remember recent events such as what they had for dinner the night before, or even just a few hours ago. They will most likely be depressed because they can’t manage things as well as they used to. An active person might lose interest in things that used to excite them. And the person might forget names of people near and dear. As the disease progresses, emotional behavior will change, the ability to communicate will be impaired and confusion will take over. Everyday tasks such as bathing will become a challenge. Later, physical changes will occur such as the inability to walk or talk and eventually swallow, which often leads to death.

Frontotemporal dementia often emerges around the age of 60 years, but it can appear in people who are in their 20s. It involves a loss of nerve cells and affects behavior, language and movement.

Dementia with Lewy bodies can resemble those of Alzheimer’s disease, but there may also be sleep disturbances, visual hallucinations, and an unsteady walking pattern. Lewy bodies are collections of protein that develop inside nerve cells and prevent them from functioning properly.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease represents a number of brain diseases that cause problems throughout the body. They are thought to be triggered by prion proteins. A prion is neither a virus nor a bacterium, but it can cause a disease. Types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) include bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or “mad cow disease.” Symptoms include rapid memory, behavior, and movement changes. It is a rare and fatal condition.

CTE–Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes in contact sports such as football. s

Huntington’s disease is a genetic disorder that results from a defect on chromosome 4. It can lead to mood changes, abnormal movements, and depression. The person may experience an ongoing decline in thinking and reasoning skills. There could be slurred speech and problems with coordination. It tends to appear between the ages of 30 and 50 years.

Parkinson’s disease is a motor system disorder. The hallmark signs include trembling, especially tremor in the hands. It can also involve depression and behavioral changes. In the later stages, the individual may have difficulty speaking and sleep disturbances.

Vascular dementia, also known as post-stroke dementia, can appear after a stroke, when there is bleeding or vessel blockage in the brain. It affects a person’s thinking and physical movements. Early symptoms may include an inability to organize, plan, or make decisions.

Preventing dementia

Although there is no cure yet, there are measures you can take NOW to stave off brain and mental decline. Click here to read 8 Ways to Train Your Brain.

Additionally, here is my list of 10 recommendations for maintaining cognitive function and boosting brain power

  1. Drink at least 8-10 glasses of water to keep your body hydrated and to flush out toxins. The brain is 70% water when fully hydrated. When it is dehydrated, neurotransmission—which is heavily dependent on water—is impaired, resulting in poor memory, concentration and impaired abstract thinking.
  2. Ginkgo biloba has been proven in hundreds of studies to help blood circulation to the brain, sharpening mental performance, increasing concentration and short-term memory. A well-known study in The Journal of the American Medical Association showed that supplementation with 40 mg of ginkgo three times a day for one year had a positive effect on patients with Alzheimer’s disease. A placebo-controlled, double-blind, randomized trail of an extract of Ginkgo biloba for dementia.
  3. Vitamin B complex optimizes cognitive activity and brain function, has a positive effect on memory, learning capacity and attention span, and supports a healthy nervous system and a stable mood. Vitamins B6 and B12, in particular, play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to improving memory, lifting mood and regulating sleep.
  4. Omega-3 fatty acids are rich in DHA, the major unsaturated fat in the brain. This long-chain fatty acid provides the necessary fluid quality to the membranes of the nerve cells so that electrical nerve impulses can flow easily along the circuits of the brain. One study found that Alzheimer’s patients given an omega-3-rich supplement experienced a significant improvement in their quality of life.
  5. Eat more blueberries! Their active antioxidants have been shown to protect and restore brain function. One recent study revealed that feeding blueberry extracts to mature mice partially reversed some signs of brain aging.
  6. Avoid alcohol. People who drink too much alcohol often show shrinkage or atrophy of the cerebral cortex, the seat of memory, learning, reasoning, intelligence, and emotions. Reduced cortical thickness in abstinent alcoholics and association with alcoholic behavior
  7. Avoid smoking. Smoking constricts blood vessels, making less blood, oxygen, and nutrients available to the brain. It also replaces oxygen with carbon monoxide, a chemical that damages brain cells.
  8. Incorporate a regular exercise program into your daily routine. An easy way to start is by walking 30 minutes a day at least five times a week. Yoga is wonderful for staving off arthritis pain, maintaining flexibility and for relaxation.
  9. Maintain your social connections. Loneliness can actually lead to health problems and mental decline. Join a group—any kind of group: worship, hiking, scrabble, table tennis, knitting, discussion group, or book club. Volunteer at a food bank, soup kitchen or animal shelter. It’s important to stay connected and to feel as though you are a contributing member of society.
  10. Sleep well by getting to bed before 11:00 pm, eating your last meal before 8pm, turning off your electronic devices, and eliminating light in your bedroom. Studies have indicated that sleep deprivation can increase risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. If you have trouble sleeping consider using a lavender essential oil spray on your pillow or a sachet of lavender inserted into the pillowcase. There are lots of natural sleep aids available at your local health food store, such as melatonin, calcium/magnesium, valerian, hops, etc. Consult with a nutritional consultant about what might work best for you.

For more information on how you can reduce stress and boost your happiness and health, read Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

BarbraCohn__

 

What special item will you keep when your loved one dies?

Green shirt with long sleeves

Of course, I kept the recipe boxes that contain the directions for the foods my mother loved and made for us: noodle kugel, apple pie, Mandelbrot, eggplant Parmesan, and sour cream coffee cake. When I look at her handwritten recipe cards I can almost feel her gentle touch. What is it about someone’s handwriting that seems to reach out and explain exactly how they feel at the moment they wrote the line? If the curve of a letter such as B or C swings too far to the right the person is said to be very generous. If the letters are straight and stiff and lean toward the left, the person is supposedly self-centered. My mother’s handwriting speaks to me of kindness and femininity and I find myself luxuriating in her handwritten notes until my eyes well up with longing for her or even for just a taste of her eggplant or the banging of her pots in the kitchen.

When I was clearing out my mother’s apartment this past August, a mint green, cotton button-down shirt with three-quarter length sleeves begged me to take it home. It looks like my mother in her younger years when she was passionately interested in health matters. Mom was one of the first New Age people to juice carrots, eat granola and take nutritional supplements, and she was overly interested in her friends’ and family member’s health issues. It made perfect sense. She loved the color green, the color associated with health. And green perfectly highlighted her green cat eyes, dark brown hair, and fair complexion.

The cotton green shirt is crumpled now. It rests in the ironing basket where it will stay until I’m able to caress it, iron the wrinkles out, and hang it in a place where I can look at it without weeping for my mother. The green shirt will hide in the bottom of the basket under clothes eager to be worn, until I am ready to wrap myself in it and feel comfort, not the grief that accompanies the inexplicable feeling that a daughter feels when she has lost her first friend, her best cheerleader, and her devoted goddess who implored the moon and stars to enchant her girl’s life. When I finally iron the green shirt, it will hang limply reminding me of the voice that I can hear as clearly as if my mother were standing next to me, reminding me of who I am and where I came from.


“Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” by Barbra Cohn contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on AmazonBarbraCohn__

10 Things to Remember if You Love a Person with Dementia

Assisting and helping elderly peopleToday is World Alzheimer’s Awareness Day. It’s a good day to repost this important article and to remind people about the book I wrote after caring for my husband who passsed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago. The book has helped so many people, which is what my intention was in writing it. “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia” contains a treasure trove of information on how to stay connected with your loved one, keep calm, improve immunity, reduce stress and feel happier and healthier. Plus, it includes 20 healing modalities that the caregiver can do alone or with their loved one. Available wherever fine books are sold and on Amazon.

It’s sometimes hard to love a family member who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with dementia can be quarrelsome, uncooperative, negative, whiney, belligerent or combative. They might get their nights and days mixed up, pace the floor for hours, wring their hands non-stop, or cry like a baby. They might ask you the same question twenty times in a row, refuse to budge when you need to get them to an appointment, or refuse to eat what you’ve made for dinner.

When the going gets tough, it helps to remember that you love the person who resides inside that body that is tight and tense and inflamed from amyloid plaque that has strangled the neurons and disrupted the neurotransmitters that allow thoughts to flow and emotions to stay even. He or she is the same person you married, the same loving parent who nurtured and guided you, the same sibling you shared holidays and outings with, or the same friend who offered a should to cry on or who helping you move to a new home.

When you’re about to lose it, walk out, or hide in the closet, stop for a moment and remember at least one of these 10 things about the person you lovingly take care of.

People with dementia and Alzheimer’s often feel:

  1. Embarrassed when you say, “ I just told you . . ..” Instead of reminding them that they forgot what you told them a second ago rephrase it, breaking it down into a simple sentence . . . or completely change the subject.
  2. Fearful because they don’t see things spatially the same way we do. Their sense of space is distorted and their vision gets skewed, not because there is something physically wrong with their eyes. But rather, the brain interprets what the eyes see, and when the brain doesn’t work right our perception gets distorted. Two things you can do to help are to put extra lights in dark areas of the living quarters and remove throw rugs in order to reduce falls.
  3. Lonely because they can’t communicate well, or some of their friends have “jumped ship.” Set up times for family or friends to visit or take your loved one on an outing.
  4. Confused because they don’t understand why they can’t drive anymore, or why they can’t go for a walk alone, or why they can’t remember where they live or what their son’s or daughter’s name is.
  5. Angry because the keys to the car have been taken away, or because they get frustrated when they can’t express their feelings or thoughts.
  6. Sad because they can’t read a book or newspaper, or can’t manage to engage in their favorite hobby or sport.
  7. Anxious because they can’t move as fast or get dressed by themselves or put on their shoes easily. Or, because they hear sounds that are disturbing or are bothered by someone else’s behavior.
  8. Nervous because they have lost their sense of balance and feel unsteady on their feet. Or because they don’t like the feel of water on their skin and don’t want to bathe and don’t want to be forced.
  9. Frustrated because they can’t write a check, figure out how much tip to leave, or remember how to use the TV remote control.
  10. Paranoid because they think someone is stealing their money or prized possessions.

When all else fails, take a deep breath and put on some music. It almost always uplifts the spirit—for both the caregiver and the person being cared for.

Please subscribe to my blog for more informative articles like this. Thank you!

Lonely? Two easy ways to make meaningful connections that might just help you live longer.

Bringing Back MemoriesBarbraCohn__

“Calmer Waters” contains more great information on how to stay connected, improve your immunity, and reduce stress. Available wherever fine books are sold and on Amazon.

I’m no stranger to loneliness. When I moved cross-country as a college student to a place  that was as foreign to me as if I had time-traveled to a different century, I didn’t know a soul. It didn’t help that I had transferred my second semester sophomore year after everyone had established their group of friends. I’ll never forget the feeling of being alone in the world, not having a friend to confide in or hang out with. Having moved from my hometown where I grew up surrounded by many relatives and a strong support network, I felt like an alien who didn’t know which foods would sustain or poison me. That experience has allowed me to understand what loneliness is and how it can trigger a downward spiral to depression. Now we are hearing from the medical community how devastating this “aloneness” can be.

Studies are showing that loneliness might be a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity. In fact, loneliness and social isolation is considered not just a psychological issue but a medical one that can actually kill you. According to a far-reaching study (meta-analysis of scientific literature on the subject January 1980 to February 2014) conducted by Brigham Young University, social isolation and loneliness is as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes and drinking six ounces of alcohol a day, and increases one’s likelihood of death by 32%.

Isolation and feeling alone has also been shown to contribute to depression, cognitive decline, the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, and poor recovery from illness and surgery.

Two programs that help seniors and caregivers connect on a personal level

Senior Center Without Walls

Senior Center Without Walls is a telephone-based national program that offers free weekly activities, education, friendly conversation, classes, support groups, and presentations  to individuals 60 years or older anywhere in the United States. There are activities occurring throughout the day, every day.

Play a game, write a poem, go on a virtual tour, meditate, share a gratitude, get support, and most importantly, connect and engage with others every day. SCWW is a community consisting of participants, staff, facilitators, presenters, and other volunteers who care about each other and who value being connected. All groups are accessible by phone and many are acessible online.

Katie Wade, program manager, says SCWW offers 75 options. People can join a particular group, call in the same time each week, hear the same voices on a regular basis and make friends. This has a positive impact on their emotional and physical life. “The gratitude activity, which is offered twice a day, is especially popular and well attended,” says Wade. “Participants share something they are grateful for. This allows for an increase in social connectedness. We also have fun and intellectual programs that help individuals feel valued, stimulated and engaged, and sometimes we invite presenters from the outside in.”

Wade points out that Senior Center Without Walls is not just for people with mobility concerns. We get folks who are active, people who are married and individuals in a co-housing situation. Anyone can feel lonely, she says. “We take a survey every year and the results indicate that 85% of our participants feel more intellectually stimulated and  socially connected. And on a daily basis, we get calls of gratitude from participants who say, ‘this program saved my live,'” says Wade.

Senior Center Without Walls is an award-winning program of Episcopal Senior Communities. For more information: SCWW@jtm-esc.org 1-877-797-7299 (also known as 1-877-797-SCWW)

Circle Talk

CircleTalk is a structured conversation program guided by leaders trained to inspire sharing among the participants. It follows a customized curriculum that engages older adults in meaningful conversations through creative activities. Director Deborah Skovron explains that the program is modeled on Rachael Kessler’s Passage Works Institute which works with school districts throughout the United States to teach teacher how to create safe, positive environments in which students are free to experience deep connection to themselves, others, and the world around them.

“Rachael asked me to take the principles of her model and create a program for seniors,” explains Skovron. Now, after eight years of development and refinement, Circle Talk has six programs running at any given time in senior living communities in Boulder, Colorado. A trained leader guides the one-hour circle following the same six steps, says Skovran.

  1. 10-12 people sit in a circle and get name tags.
  2. The group settles down by being led in a brief meditation.
  3. The leader does a warm-up activity asking simple questions such as, “What was your favorite game as a kid?”
  4. Next, the leader connects to the previous week by saying, “Last week we talked about . . .”
  5. The main focus of the week is introduced. A topic might be something like “What’s an important moment in history that helped inform who you are today? i.e. the first man on the moon, the Depression. How did it impact your life?” This leads to questions and conversation.
  6. The leader ends with a ritual such as asking each person to pass a message to the person sitting next to him/her, passing a squeeze, giving a “word” for the week, etc.

“My favorite thing is finding out no matter what age people are, they still require connections to other people and to themselves to remember who they have been. Circle Talk really allows for that opportunity,” says Skovron.

Skovron’s goal is to make Circle Talk available nation-wide. For information about volunteering, becoming a certified leader, donating, or participating in Circle Talk, visit CircleTalk. Circle Talk programs are thoughtfully designed conversation groups. They make it possible to form new relationships, providing a chance for reflection and self expression that many thought were lost to them forever.

Loneliness vs. Aloneness: Why one is dangerous to your health

Mother and daughter

Loneliness puts one at risk for a number of serious health issues.

When I transferred to a university 2,000 miles from home my second semester sophomore year, I experienced loneliness for the first time. It emerged as a physical sensation in my chest and developed into a mild depression. Four decades later, I have a large network of friends and family, including four grandchildren. I am never lonely, but I’m often alone, and I relish that quiet time.

What is the difference between being lonely and alone, and why is one dangerous to your health?

Loneliness is a complex, uncomfortable emotional response to lack of companionship and or isolation. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Studies have shown that Americans feel increasingly alone. Two recent studies suggest that our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection. In the first, using data from the General Social Survey (GSS), Duke University researchers found that between 1985 and 2004 the number of people with whom the average American discussed “important matters” dropped from three to two.  Even more stunning, the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: In 2004 individuals without a single confidant made up a quarter of those surveyed.

You might have hundreds of friends on Facebook and still be lonely. Because, according to John T. Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., New York, 2008), social networking sites provide people with a false sense of connection that often increases loneliness in people who feel alone. Cacioppo says that social media sites should serve as a supplement to personal interaction, rather than as a replacement. He compares connecting on a Web site to eating celery: “It feels good immediately, but it doesn’t give you the same sustenance,” he says. For people who feel satisfied and loved in their day-to-day life, social media can be a reassuring extension. For those who are already lonely, Facebook status updates are just a reminder of how much better everyone else is at making friends and having fun.

How do we feel lonely?

You can be lonely in a marriage in which you have nothing in common with your spouse who is a work addict or involved in activities that don’t include you. You can feel terribly lonely, as I did, after moving to a new city where you don’t know a soul. Or you can feel lonely (and depressed) if you are adjusting to living alone in the home you shared with a deceased or divorced life partner. New parents often experience loneliness during the early months of a newborn’s life if they are on maternity leave and not interacting with their work colleagues.

Loneliness usually includes feeling anxious or depressed, and can manifest as physical, emotional, mental, and social symptoms. But feelings of depression can also lead to loneliness because often a person who is depressed doesn’t have the energy or will to make the effort to socialize.

The health risks

Older adults who describe themselves as lonely have a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death. Chronic isolation and loneliness have been linked to depression, physical decline, and even shorter lifespans. It’s a problem that can affect anyone: infants, teens or adults, and evidence suggests Americans are more socially isolated now than ever before.

Researchers have found that prolonged isolation is just as dangerous as obesity, smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcoholism. Isolation and loneliness can:

  • compromise the immune system
  • contribute to depression and anxiety
  • affect sleep
  • increase stress hormones
  • contribute to premature aging
  • increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack
  • contribute to cognitive decline and risk of dementia
  • lead to the admission to nursing homes or the use of emergency services
  • result in death

The problem of social isolation

An estimated one in five adults over age 50—at least 8 million—are affected by isolation. Although the terms isolation and loneliness are often used interchangeably, they’re not exactly the same thing. Loneliness refers to how people perceive their experience and whether they feel isolated. A person can be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Isolation, though, can be measured by such things as the size of a person’s social network, availability of transportation, and the ability to access resources and information.

Eradicating isolation has been identified by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare as one of its top challenges today.

Factors that put you at risk for isolation “Framework for Isolation in Adults Over 50,” AARP Foundation (May 2012)

  • Living alone*
  • Mobility or sensory impairment*
  • Major life transitions or losses*
  • Low income or limited financial resources
  • Being a caregiver for someone with a serious condition
  • Psychological or cognitive challenges
  • Inadequate social support
  • Rural, unsafe and/or inaccessible neighborhood
  • Transportation access challenges
  • Language barriers
  • Age, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation and/or gender identity barriers

* Primary factors

 

Why being alone can be a good thing

I am a professional writer and require a lot of alone time. In fact, I prefer to be in my home office without anyone in the house for hours or days at a time so that I can work without interference. I am also a meditator and love to dive deep into the silence. I love to read, I love to play the piano. I enjoy my own companionship. All these things are solitary activities that strengthen my spirit and feed my soul.

Yet, I need to engage socially after a few days of being snowed in, or after a few days of spending hours at my computer. Over my lifetime, I’ve built up a reserve of people to play with, have lunch with, discuss with, and activities to engage in, and I doubt if I’ll ever feel lonely again as I did when I was 19 and moved to a strange city far from my family and friends.

Ways to feel connected

If you are feeling a lonely or isolated, get ahead of the lonely curve now to expand your social network. Don’t put it off. Getting socially connected might take some effort, but it is definitely worth it for so many reasons. You will gain friendship, companionship, better health, and in the process you will be giving of yourself, which is the best gift of all.

Here are some ideas to help you get going:

  • Volunteer at a school, library, hospital, food bank, etc.
  • Attend religious services/spiritual gatherings
  • Join or start a book club.
  • Plan a neighborhood potluck.
  • Stay physically active and join a hiking/walking club.
  • Take a class to learn something new.
  • Join a “New Mom’s Group,” or go to the senior center for a lecture or interesting program.
  • Teach others how to knit, sew, bake, garden, paint, etc.
  • Get involved in a community project or cause.
  • Host a movie night for your neighbors.
  • Learn how to use social media to stay connected with friends and family.
  • Before you give up your keys, learn about transportation options in your town.
  • Consider living in a co-housing community.

I’d love to hear from you. Please send your story of how you stay connected.

“Life is short, make it sweet.”