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Successful Aging: Challenging assumptions about loneliness and isolation in older Americans

Dear readers:

Loneliness and social isolation in the U.S. is a growing epidemic affecting over eight million older adults, according to the AARP Foundation. To increase our awareness about this epidemic, take this brief true-false quiz which may challenge some of our assumptions.

1. Loneliness and social isolation are the same.

2. Prolonged isolation is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

3. Feeling lonely can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, overeating, malnutrition and alcohol abuse.

4. Loneliness can have serious physical side effects.

5. Feelings of loneliness have little to do with cognitive decline.

6. The United Kingdom has appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

7. Individuals 60 and older who report feeling lonely have a 10 percent higher risk of death than those who do not feel lonely.

8. If you live with someone, it is unlikely you will feel lonely.

9. Loneliness among older adults who are part of the LGBT community are less likely to become more isolated with age.

10. Social isolation makes older adults more vulnerable to elder abuse.

11. Where you live has a relatively minor effect on loneliness and isolation.

12. About one in 10 women live alone.

13. We have adequate resources to keep older adults connected.


1. False: Loneliness refers to a feeling about how people perceive their experience. Social isolation is more objective involving quantifiable measures such as how frequently one sees friends, the availability of transportation and access to resources.

2. True: Social isolation is a significant health risk associated with a shorter life span similar to smoking cigarettes and is even a greater health risk than obesity.

3. True: Loneliness is harmful by increasing these risks.

4. True: Loneliness can increase the chance of arthritis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart disease and even glaucoma.

5. False: Feelings of loneliness are linked to poor cognitive performance and quicker cognitive decline.

6. True: According to a 2017 report, more than nine million people in that country always feel lonely. As a result, Prime Minister Theresa May appointed a minister for loneliness.

7. False: An AARP study found that those 60 and older had a 45 percent higher risk of death compared to those who reported they did not feel lonely.

8. False: A study from the University of California San Francisco found that 43 percent of older adults surveyed reported they felt lonely even if though they lived with someone.

9. False: Those in the LGBT community are more likely to be lonely. They are less likely to have children and are more likely to be socially isolated. The problem is made worse because of the social stigma among older generations. Fortunately, a growing number of LGBT-friendly senior living communities have been developed.

10. True: The National Center on Elder Abuse refers to studies that show a connection between social isolation and higher rates of elder abuse. Isolated adults may be more vulnerable or they may be vulnerable because their abusers attempt to isolate them from others.

11. False: The National Council on Aging reports that one in six older adults living alone in the U.S. face physical, cultural and/or geographic barriers that isolate them from their peers and communities. These barriers often prevent them from receiving needed services.

12. False: According to the Population Reference Bureau, more than one-fourth (27 percent) of women ages 65 to 74 lived alone in 2014. This jumps to 42 percent among women ages 75 to 84, and to 56 percent among women ages 85 and older.

13. False: We need more resources that are accessible particularly for those geographically isolated from friends, other people and community. Rural older adults are a good example. Many are separated by long distances and often their children leave to explore life elsewhere. Lenard Kaye, director of the University of Maine Center on Aging, writes that rural elders are proud of their stoicism and independence, qualities which may have negative social consequences in older age.

Next week we will describe some innovative programs, propose some suggestions and discuss what we can do as individuals to address this national epidemic.

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