Shrinking social networks can be a normal part of the aging process. Retirement, illness, the burdens of caring for a spouse and even death of friends and loved ones can all lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness in older adults. Most of us don’t realize it but these changes in our lives may require us make a conscious effort to rebuild our social network.
Loneliness is a risk factor for both functional decline (mental and physical) as well as an early death. Over time, chronic loneliness has been associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, diminished immune response, depression, trouble sleeping, cognitive decline and even dementia.
There is an abundance of research indicating that physical exercise and mental stimulation can help prevent age related decline in our brain functioning. Neuroscientist Carl Cotman of the University of California at Irvine discovered that physical exercise helps form a protein in our brains that keeps neurons from dying. This protein also boosts the occurrence of new neural connections in the brain.
However, there is also additional research being done which leads some to believe that socializing frequently can also help our long term, overall health. In a study of elderly dogs and mice, Cotman also saw an improvement in the brain function of these animals when their “social” environment was stimulated. Other similar studies in humans are showing that elderly adults who are social active tend to maintain mental sharpness.
In another recent study by Neurologist, Dr. Aron Buchman, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, 906 seniors with an average age of 80 years old were studied over a 5 year period. Their social activity was ranked on a scale from 1 to 5. A rating of 1 was given to those who were only involved in various activities one time per year. A rating of 5 was assigned to those who participated in an activity every day or nearly every day. Dr. Buchman then observed the groups physical abilities. He observed things like walking in a straight line, standing on one leg, standing on tip toes, and placing pegs on a board. The interesting result Dr. Buchman is seeing is that for each drop in point on the social scale, there is a 33% increase in the rate of physical decline over the years. More research is being done to strengthen and confirm these findings.
So what can you do to expand and strengthen your social circles? Here are a few things to try.
- Remember those hobbies you’ve always loved? Try to find groups that share that same interest. Find and join a book club through your local library or join your church’s quilting club. These groups are people who share your interests and may become great friends.
- Take some classes. There are many opportunities for older adults to keep learning. Many adult education classes are tailored to the interests of older adults. You have the opportunity to learn local history, try out your computer skills and even learn how to downsize. Plus, the person in the seat next to you may become a good friend.
- Be open to suggestions and invitations to try new things. Maybe it’s a shopping trip to a new store or an invitation to try a new restaurant. There is no harm in trying new things and meeting new people.
- Make some time to volunteer. Churches, hospitals, local non-profit organizations and schools are all looking for volunteers to help in many different ways. Find an organization you are passionate and give back. You’ll meet new people and expand your social circle.
- Explore retirement community living options. Even if you are perfectly capable of living independently in your current home, you may be geographically isolated from social interaction. Retirement communities offer independent living with the added benefits of a busy activity schedule and lots of opportunities for socializing.