Loneliness attacks physical and emotional well-being

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.


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.