Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity and has become a public health concern, especially for older adults, say researchers.
With older adults increasingly moving into senior living or retirement communities, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine sought to identify the common characteristics of residents who feel lonely in these environments.
The new study, published in the journal 'Aging and Mental Health', found that people's experience of living with loneliness is shaped by a number of personal and environmental factors. Age-associated losses and inadequate social skills were considered primary risk factors for loneliness.
"Some residents talked about the loss of spouses, siblings, and friends as the cause of their loneliness. Others mentioned how making new friends in a senior community cannot replace deceased friends they grew up with," said Alejandra Paredes, a research fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. The feeling of loneliness was frequently associated with a lack of purpose in life.
Others expressed a sense of "not being attached, not having very much meaning and not feeling very hopeful" or "being lost and not having control". The research team also found that wisdom, including compassion, seemed to be a factor that prevented loneliness. Other protective factors were acceptance of aging and comfort with being alone.
To reach this conclusion, researchers conducted individual interviews of 30 adults of ages 67-92, part of an overall study evaluating the physical, mental and cognitive functions of 100 older adults living in the independent living sector of a senior housing community in San Diego.
"It is important that we identify the underlying causes of loneliness from the seniors' own perspectives so we can help resolve it and improve the overall health, well-being, and longevity of our aging population," suggested senior author Dilip V. Jeste, senior Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine.