More than 13 million people age 65 and older lived alone in 2017, a situation that isn’t ideal for a person’s mental and physical well-being.
“We know social isolation is a serious threat to health and affects us mentally and physically,” Dr. Raymond Hobbs, physician consultant at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, told Healthline.
In fact, the National Institute on Aging says research has linked social isolation and loneliness to higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and more.
Interacting with others may be the key to warding off these conditions, says Hobbs. He suggests starting with family.
“The first social group we all have is our family… so strengthen relationships with brothers, sisters, children, nephews, nieces, and cousins. Since they are people you know for the longest time and have shared things with them for years, it’s an easy way to start,” he said.
However, according to a recent study from the University College London, friends, not family, may make all the difference when it comes to reducing risk of dementia later in life.
“We examined social contact with both friends and relatives and found that it was contact with friends, rather than relatives, which seemed to be protective,” Andrew Sommerlad, PhD, lead author of the study, told Healthline. “This may be because contact with friends is more cognitively stimulating, or simply reflect that we can choose how many friends we have, but we have less control over how many relatives we can see.”
Sommerlad’s research showed that 60-year-old people who visited with friends almost daily were 12 percent less likely to develop dementia than those who only saw one or two friends every few months.
“It is most likely that social contact is beneficial by building cognitive reserve, meaning greater resilience against the damage which occurs in conditions like dementia, so that people have well-developed language and memory skills which help them cope for longer and delay the problems caused by dementia,” said Sommerlad.
While previous studies have found a link between social contact and dementia risk, Sommerlad says this study had a longer follow-up time, which allowed for stronger evidence that social engagement could protect people from dementia in the long-term.
The study tracked more than 10,000 participants from 1985 to 2013, and asked them on six occasions about their frequency of social contact with friends and relatives.
“I think this research adds another important approach for people who are concerned about cognitive decline and dementia. Alongside managing cardiovascular health and being physically active, people should endeavor to stay socially active,” Sommerlad said.
5 ways to get social
Hobbs offers the following five suggestions for getting socially involved.
- Volunteer your talents
Not only can volunteering a few times a week or month bring structure to one’s life, but it can also create connections with others.
“Whether you went to college or not, you have a lot of life experience when you get older. Maybe you’re a wonderful cook or knitter or are great at playing bridge or chess or scrabble. You can use that knowledge to teach others and interact with them,” said Hobbs.
- Find a hobby
Practicing something you enjoy can fill time, bring joy, and help you meet new people.
“If you like doing pottery or water coloring or playing music, get out there and meet others who like to do the same things you do,” Hobbs said.
However, he recommends picking a hobby that truly interests you.
“Make sure it’s something that you like and you’ll stick to it,” he said. “I had a patient who was going to retire and I asked him what he was going to do. He said, ‘I’m going to fish, and I’ve never done it before.’ I thought that’s not a good sign. Maybe he’ll like it, but if he’s never done it, maybe he won’t.”
- Learn something new
Community colleges and senior centers offer courses in many subjects, as well as private businesses.
“I don’t mean take organic chemistry — unless you really want to — but acquiring new skills and trades can maintain mental health for seniors,” Hobbs said.
If you’re looking to take on a new physical activity that also combines cognitive and social benefits, he says to also consider taking a dance class.
“A study years ago looked at people for over 25 years and which cognitive things challenge you like reading, playing a musical instrument, or learning a foreign language, as well as exercising and lifting weights,” said Hobbs. “They found that the only physical activity that seemed to benefit was dancing. Might be because you are learning moves and so you’re doing something physical that’s actually stretching your mind, and you’re also interacting with people.”
Seeing new places can encourage interactions with others.
“Travel can expose you to different cultures and people even within your own city or country. Travel can also can get you physically active with walking and sightseeing,” said Hobbs.
For short, local outings, he says carpooling is a good way to socialize.
“You’re talking with other people and may develop friendships too,” Hobbs said.
- Embrace social media
For those who are homebound or unable to get out and about, online tools offer a way to stay connected with family and friends, and even provide opportunities to meet new friends.
“The internet expands people’s world. Now with social media you can go online and see grandchildren or friends. Also, if you have an obscure interest in [something like] Bulgarian pottery or south Vietnamese cooking, and want to find other people who like it, you might not find people locally, but online you can find a group who likes it,” said Hobbs.
For those who are wary of technology, he suggests asking a younger relative for help.
“Know that computers are easier to deal with than they were 20 years ago. They are an easy way to get involved in something you’re interested in,” said Hobbs.
Overcoming social barriers
If you’re a loved one of an older adult who is reluctant to get involved in social activity, Hobbs suggests figuring out what barriers they face.
“Consider if there is something that is preventing them from being socially active, such as cost, no way to get to [an activity], or medical [challenges] like bad arthritis or urinary incontinence that makes it hard or embarrassing to be in public,” Hobbs said.
Be on the lookout for depression, as well, he adds.
“One thing that goes along with depression is lack of interest in pleasure — the things you used to like to do, all the sudden you don’t have interest in,” said Hobbs. “Again, medical treatment can help.”
Once you know why an older adult isn’t engaging in social activity, you can look into options such as covering the cost of a class, coming up with a way to transport your loved one to and from an activity, or encouraging them to seek medical treatment for a condition that’s holding them back.