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.”


The loneliness of caregiving: How to stay socially connected

Closeup of old woman hands holding mobile phone

Woman with mobile phone

My husband had younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The hardest thing for me during the duration of his illness was that I lost my companion. He was the person I made important decisions with. The person I went to movies with, ate dinner with, had interesting conversations with, traveled with, and shared delight with over the accomplishments of our children. He was the one I could complain to if I had a headache, stomach ache, or sore throat, without worrying about being called a hypochondriac or a baby. He was also the person who always cheered me on when I succeeded in achieving my goals.

When it came time to make the decision to move him to a memory care home, I especially missed having him help me decide on which room he’d live in, what type of furniture to buy, and the mattress he would sleep on. When it came time to bury him, it was agonizing for me to choose the plot of land where he would be laid to rest, and where I will be eventually interred.

During my many years of caregiving, I would often hide behind a mask of cheerfulness. It helped. I didn’t feel like a prisoner because I hired people to take my husband out to see a movie. Several of his friends kindly took him to lunch on a regular basis. It takes an effort to maintain friends and to stay socially involved, especially if you no longer work outside the home.

I promised myself that I wouldn’t let my husband’s disease ruin my life. I kept an active calendar filled with dance classes, lunches with friends, and even pursued a certificate in nutrition–all the while he was ill.

But it took planning and some might think I was a bit selfish. But when you look at the grand picture of caregiving, taking care of your personal needs is anything but being selfish. Studies show that 40 to 70 percent of family caregivers experience symptoms of clinical depression. One of the reasons, besides the daily stress, is isolation and loneliness.

Now for the lecture part: If you are a caregiver it is vital that you maintain a social network. Here are some ideas:

  • Stay connected with friends and family either through Facebook or another social media outlet, or by telephone or email, etc.
  • Make a lunch date with a friend at least once a week.
  • Many places of worship offer support for caregivers and families, including social events.
  • Go to a class—any kind of class: knitting, dance, weight training.
  • Join a support group—The Alzheimer’s Association offers classes and workshops for caregivers and for the person with memory loss.
  • Ask your friends and family for respite care. Have someone come over for a couple of hours a week so you can at least get out for a walk or go grocery shopping.
  • Go to the movies with a friend. It’s a great way to escape into another world for a few hours.
  • Call a best friend who is happy to talk; call someone who makes you laugh–laughter is truly the best medicine.
  • Bring your loved one to a Memory Cafe/Alzheimer’s Cafe. The challenges of living with memory loss can sever social connection at a time when it is needed most. Throughout the US and Europe, this casual social meeting is for caregivers and their care partner (the person they are caring for). Memory Cafes offer a way to socialize, explore art, music, poetry and listen to discussions and presentations. A Dutch psychologist opened the firs Memory Cafe in Holland. today there are about 200 Memory Cafes in the U.S.
  • Chat online with other caregivers. The Alzheimer’s Association offers chat rooms and so does the American Cancer Society. Check Elder Care Online for chat room and caregiver forum links. ElderCare Online’s Caregiver Support Network brings together online resources, groups and experts to create a virtual community dedicated to improving quality of life for you and your loved ones.