By Rena Marken

Loneliness, once viewed as a mere emotional state, is now recognized as a serious health concern.

Harvard’s Study of Adult Development, a comprehensive 75-year study, has provided invaluable insights into the profound impact of loneliness on our well-being, particularly as we age. As the study reveals, loneliness is not just a psychological burden; it can have detrimental effects on our physical, emotional, and cognitive health.

Harvard’s research highlights the toxic nature of loneliness. Individuals who experience more isolation than they desire are not only less happy, but also face earlier declines in health and cognitive function, leading to shorter lives. Shockingly, more than one in five Americans report feeling lonely at any given time, emphasizing the pervasive nature of this issue. Loneliness, as the study suggests, is not confined to social isolation; it can thrive even in the midst of a crowd or within the bounds of a marriage.

One of the study’s key findings challenges the notion that the number of friends or the presence of a committed relationship is the sole determinant of well-being. Instead, it’s the quality of close relationships that proves crucial. Living amidst conflict, especially in marriages lacking affection, is revealed to be detrimental to health. The study emphasizes that warm and supportive relationships, rather than simply being in a relationship, play a pivotal role in maintaining overall health.

Intriguingly, the study found that middle-age individuals who were most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. Surprisingly, it wasn’t cholesterol levels that proved to be the most predictive factor of a person’s health in old age–rather, it was their satisfaction in relationships. This reinforces the idea that close relationships act as a buffer against the challenges of aging.

Protecting body and mind

A crucial insight further emphasizes that strong relationships offer more than just physical protection; they extend to safeguarding cognitive well-being. Research reveals that securely attached relationships in one’s 80s contribute to enhanced memory retention. Individuals who find solace in partners they can rely on during times of need experience sustained cognitive function over time. Conversely, those entangled in relationships lacking trust face an accelerated decline in memory. Additionally, the study sheds light on the silent partnership between loneliness and mental health challenges. It uncovers a correlation between loneliness and heightened vulnerability to conditions such as depression, anxiety, and cognitive decline. The absence of social engagement and support not only exacerbates existing mental health issues, but also poses a barrier to recovery.

Harvard’s research challenges the modern pursuit of quick fixes and instant gratification. Relationships, it asserts, are messy, complicated, and lifelong. The study recommends actively tending to family and friends throughout one’s life, replacing workmates with new playmates in retirement. The happiest retirees in the study were those who invested time and effort into building meaningful connections beyond the workplace.

“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” said the study’s dsirector, Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too. That, I think, is the revelation.”

As loneliness emerges as a health crisis, Harvard’s study offers profound insights into the power of relationships. The findings remind us that the pursuit of fame and wealth pales in comparison to the enduring value of genuine connections with family, friends, and community. In a world that often seeks shortcuts to happiness, the study’s wisdom is a timeless reminder that the foundation of a good life lies in the intricate, lifelong work of cultivating and maintaining meaningful relationships.

Rena Marken is the co-founder of Ascending Community of Light LLC and manager of RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) for Lutheran Community Services Northwest.

THREE THINGS TO DO IF YOU’RE FEELING LONELY

Exercise regularly.

In addition to being good for overall health, regular exercise has positive effects on mental health, according to surveys and other research. It can help manage or even prevent certain health issues, including heart disease, stroke, arthritis, and it’s associated with lower rates of depression. That doesn’t mean running a 5K every morning, as even normal everyday activities like walking or doing yard work can help keep you physically fit. For older adults, four types of exercise are recommended — endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.

Build community connections.

An active social life is just as important as being physically active as we age. Visits with friends and family can help lower feelings of isolation, and many older adults use this period in their lives to focus on causes that are important to them.

AmeriCorps senior volunteers can help connect you with organizations that need a helping hand in your community. In Pierce County and Kitsap County, contact RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program), which is operated locally by Lutheran Community Services Northwest. Call 253-722-5695.

Other ways of building community connections can include running for local office, taking classes at a library or community college, or spending a few hours a week at a part-time job.

Get regular medical care.

Preventive care is often the key to remaining healthy into old age, and Medicare can help people access preventive care like screenings, counseling, and flu shots.

Your doctor can offer advice and referrals if you are concerned about your mental health, a key component of overall health. Depression can be common for older adults, but there is no reason to live with intrusive or depressive thoughts. If you’re in emotional distress or concerned about the mental health of a loved one, call hotlines such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) at 206-783-4288 or the federally supported SAMSHA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) at 800-662-4357 for help, referrals, and advice.

Women may get more from exercise than men do

Women who exercise regularly have a significantly lower risk of an early death or fatal cardiovascular event than men who exercise regularly, even when women put in less effort, according to a National Institutes of Health-supported study.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, are based on a study involving more than 400,000 U.S. adults ages 27 to 61. The study showed that over a two-decades period, women were 24 percent less likely than those who don’t exercise to experience death from any cause, while men were 15 percent less likely. Women also had a 36 percent reduced risk for a fatal heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular event, while men had a 14 percent reduced risk.  

“We hope this study will help everyone, especially women, understand they are poised to gain tremendous benefits from exercise,” said Dr. Susan Cheng, a cardiologist for the Erika J. Glazer Women’s Cardiovascular Health and Population Science in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “It is an incredibly powerful way to live healthier and longer. Women on average tend to exercise less than men, and hopefully these findings inspire more women to add extra movement to their lives.”    

The researchers found a link between women experiencing greater reduced risks for death compared to men among all types of exercise. This included moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking; vigorous exercise, such as taking a spinning class or jumping rope; and strength training, which could include body-weight exercises.

Scientists found that for moderate aerobic physical activity, the reduced risk for death plateaued for both men and women at 300 minutes, or five hours, per week. At this level of activity, women and men reduced their risk of premature death by 24 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Similar trends were seen with 110 minutes of weekly vigorous aerobic exercise, which correlated with a 24 percent reduced risk of death for women and a 19 percent reduced risk for men.

Also, women also achieved the same benefits as men but in shorter amounts of time. For moderate aerobic exercise, they met the 18 percent reduced risk mark in half the time needed for men–140 minutes, or under 2.5 hours per week, compared to 300 minutes for men. With vigorous aerobic exercise, women met the 19 percent reduced risk mark with just 57 minutes a week, compared to 110 minutes for men.

This applied to weekly strength training, too. Women and men who participated in strength-based exercises had a 19 percent and 11 percent reduced risk for death, respectively, compared to those who didn’t do these exercises. Women who strength-trained saw an even greater reduced risk of cardiovascular-related deaths at 30 percent, compared to 11 percent for men. 

For all the health benefits of exercise for both groups, however, only 33 percent of women and 43 percent of men in the study met the standard for weekly aerobic exercise, while 20 percent of women and 28 percent of men completed a weekly strength training session.

“Even a limited amount of regular exercise can provide a major benefit, and it turns out this is especially true for women,” said Cheng. “Taking some regular time out for exercise, even if it’s just 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise a few times each week, can offer a lot more gain than they may realize.”

“There is no singular approach for exercise,” said Eric Shiroma, Sc.D., a program director in the Clinical Applications and Prevention branch at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). “A person’s physical activity needs and goals may change based on their age, health status, and schedule. But the value of any type of exercise is irrefutable.”

The study authors said multiple factors, including variations in anatomy and physiology, may account for the differences in outcomes between the sexes. For example, men often have increased lung capacity, larger hearts, more lean-body mass, and a greater proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers compared to women. As a result, women may use added respiratory, metabolic, and strength demands to conduct the same movement and in turn reap greater health rewards.

The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 2.5 to 5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise or about 1 to 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise each week, or a combination of both, and participate in two or more days a week of strength-based activities.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is part of the National Institutes of Health. The latter is the the nation’s medical research agency and a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Regular memory screenings are an important early detection tool of potential memory problems and should be part of everyone’s health and wellness routine.

That’s a reminder from the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America (AFA), which offers free, confidential memory screenings every weekday through secure videoconference technology, with no minimum age or insurance prerequisites. Appointments can be scheduled at 866-232-8484 or alzfdn.org.

“Memory screenings are important for everyone, even if they aren’t currently experiencing memory problems. Just as with other facets of health, early detection of potential memory issues is critically important,” said Charles Fuschillo Jr., AFA’s president.

He said the screenings are simple, quick, and non-invasive, and consist of a series of questions to gauge memory and other cognitive functions. Any device with an Internet connection can be used for the videoconference.  

Memory screenings are similar to other routine health screenings, such as those for blood pressure, cholesterol, and skin checks. Results aren’t a diagnosis of any particular condition, but can suggest if someone should see a physician for a full evaluation.

Many types of conditions can cause memory issues, including treatable or curable conditions such as vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders, urinary tract infections, sleep apnea, stress, anxiety, and depression.

Even in the case of a dementia-related illness such as Alzheimer’s, early detection can help start treatments to slow the symptoms, take advantage of community services such as support groups and therapeutic programming  aimed at helping maximize quality of life, and help give people a greater say in making decisions about their  legal, financial, and healthcare situations.

By Jack Huber

A recent study found that the risk of dementia was higher and associated with adults in their 50s and 60s with a sleep duration of less than six hours. This emphasizes the importance for older adults to not only be screened for sleep disorders, but also to maintain and improve their sleep quality.

Between 40 percent and 70 percent of older adults have chronic sleep issues, but up to half go undiagnosed. Sleep disordered breathing, a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts, affects 22 million Americans; and 80 percent of the cases of moderate and severe obstructive sleep apnea, the repeated collapse or partial collapse of the upper airway, go undiagnosed.

Airway stents may be the answer for healthcare providers seeking to not only help optimize sleep for older patients, but also shift away from treating sleep issues with sedatives due to their addictive nature and side-effects, such as impaired memory and focus. 

Aging increases body fat and reduces total body water and plasma proteins, resulting in increased drug elimination half-life and the potential risk of adverse effects. For this reason, older adults should be treated first with non-pharmacological options before using pharmacological options.

Non-pharmacological approaches include relaxation techniques, improving sleep hygiene and cognitive behavioral therapy. These options can be effective even for older adults with cognitive impairment. For proper sleep hygiene, individuals should avoid daytime naps, maintain a regular sleep schedule, limit substances such as caffeinated beverages, nicotine and alcohol, and exercise at least six hours before bedtime.

Common among older people, sleep disorder breathing (SDB) can lead to cognitive impairment, mood changes, compromised quality of life (often attributed to reduced social functioning and vitality), higher risk of stroke and comorbidities, with up to 50 percent of patients with mild symptomatic chronic heart failure having SDB.

One study found that older adults with untreated severe SDB had increased all-cause mortality. Additional outcomes of particular interest in older people may include glaucoma, falls with fractures, impaired quality of life, decreased pain tolerance, frailty, and mortality.

Untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can lead to high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atrial fibrillation, stroke, and other cardiovascular problems. This disorder is also associated with Type 2 diabetes and depression, and is a factor in a large number of traffic accidents due to persistent drowsiness.

Treatments

Treatments for breathing issues include weight loss, smoking cessation and increased cardiovascular exercise, enhanced sleep opportunity and environment, optimized medical management of comorbidities, and reduction in caffeine, alcohol and sedatives.

Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy is a common treatment for OSA. CPAP pushes air into the airways to keep them open with a pump that controls airflow, a tube carrying air from the machine to the user, and a mask that goes over the mouth, nose or both. Typical problems with CPAP, however, include discomfort, leaky mask, trouble falling asleep, stuffy nose, and a dry mouth. Other treatments include oral appliances, surgery and sleep aid devices.

The most effective sleep-aid devices support natural nasal breathing, which is essential for optimal health because they filter, warm and humidify inhaled air. This protects the lungs, leads to better oxygen supply to the body, stimulates the calming nervous system, and reduces snoring and SDB. All of these factors contribute to a stronger immune system and improve quality of life.

Among the most promising sleep-aid devices, innovative stent-based therapies not only support healthy, natural nasal breathing, but also enhance physical performance, mitigate symptoms of chronic sinusitis and other quality-of-life conditions such as allergies, rhinitis, chronic rhinitis, sinusitis, allergic rhinitis, and many autoimmune diseases.

Stents can be worn comfortably for up to 18 hours at a time for optimal breathing, transform unhealthy sleep patterns, improve nasal breathing to increase oxygen supply, and result in more relaxing sleep.

Healthcare providers should look for airway stents that have been clinically tested for treatment of patients struggling with OSA and snoring and designed to support healthy, natural nasal breathing at night and during the day.

Jack Huber is president of Alaxo Airway Stents.