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May is Older Americans Month, and here are some things to consider



05/19/2024

The month of May has been set aside to focus on us – the older crowd. 


It’s Older Americans Month. President Biden made it official by calling “upon all Americans to celebrate older adults for their contributions, to support their independence and recognize their unparalleled value to our nation.” 


The formal recognition of older Americans began with President Kennedy in 1963. That was a time when only 17 million Americans reached their 65th birthday, in comparison to over 40 million today. And about one-third of those 17 million lived in poverty with few programs to meet their needs. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Older Americans Act and formally declared May as Older Americans Month. 


The theme this year is “Powered by Connection.” It’s about connecting to one another, recognizing the profound impact of meaningful relationships and social connections on our health and well-being. 


Social isolation and loneliness is a national epidemic, according to the U.S. Surgeon General, and an underappreciated public health risk. 


Nearly one-fourth of those age 65 and older are socially isolated as reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.K. has addressed the problem by appointing a Minister of Loneliness


Social isolation and loneliness are not quite the same. Social isolation is objective, it’s the physical separation from other people. Loneliness is subjective, it’s a feeling of being alone or separated. It’s possible to feel lonely with other people; you also can be alone and not feel lonely.


The overall health effects are profound. They are linked to increased higher risks for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and a weakened immune system. Add to that list anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s Disease and even death. 


Here is some of what we know. 


The physiology of loneliness:  According to Steve Cole, director of Social Genomic Core Laboratory at the University of California, Los Angeles, loneliness may change the tendency of cells in the immune system to promote inflammation, which is necessary to help our bodies heal from injury. If the inflammation lasts too long, it increases the risk of chronic disease. Loneliness also may weaken the effectiveness of immune cells to fight viruses. These physiological changes often are related to individuals’ emotional pain as they lose their sense of connectedness and community. 


Genetics: Genes may play a role. Using twin studies, researchers found 37 to 55 percent of the twin participants had a genetic predisposition to loneliness. This genetic risk predicted cardiovascular, psychiatric and metabolic traits which predict the progression of disease.


Social determinants: These are the non-medical factors that influence social connections and opportunities to be healthy. These include where people are born, where they work and how they live. It includes economic policies, racism, climate change, social norms and more. Research studies are focusing on the often-neglected impact of these determinants on longevity and healthy aging. 


Here are some tips to enhance social connections. 


  • Take care of yourself. That means getting enough exercise, sleep, healthy eating and engaging in activities you enjoy. Try volunteering. This provides a mission and the feeling you are making a difference. It also boosts mood, well-being and cognitive functioning.

  • Make the time. This is time to connect with someone daily. That may be in-person or with a phone call or Zoom. The key is to make the time.

  • Use technology. You might use Zoom, video chats or face time. If technology is an obstacle find some in-person help for emails and social media. 

  • Adopt a pet. This assumes you can care for it. In addition to good company a pet is known to lower stress and blood pressure. 

  • Stay physically active. This is exercise that makes you breathe a little harder with a recommended 150 minutes weekly. Consider joining a walking group, playing pickleball or working out with a friend. 

  • Join a faith-based organization. This is an established community that typically welcomes new members with open arms. 

  • Take the initiative. This may be the most difficult. It may be as simple as introducing yourself to a neighbor and having a nice chat. 


We all are social creatures. The National Institute on Health reminds us that “Our connection to others enables us to survive and thrive,” 


So let’s all celebrate Older Americans Month by reaching out to someone who might feel lonely, beginning today. Such random acts of kindness count. 


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity

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