Feeling extremely lonely on a regular basis is worse than obesity for increasing health risks which lead to premature death, say researchers. The study from the University of Chicago found feeling lonely can increase the risk of premature death in an older person by 14 percent. A 2010 study found extreme loneliness has double the impact of obesity on early death in older people.
The findings mean extreme loneliness is nearly as bad as disadvantaged socioeconomic status in increasing the risk of premature death. Studies have shown people who are of low socioeconomic status have a 19 percent higher risk of early death than those in a better socioeconomic position.
Loneliness can result in disrupted sleep, raised blood pressure, depression, and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, found dramatic differences in the rate of decline of the mental and physical health between socially engaged and lonely older people.
Loneliness risk for expat retirees
Anyone planning on retiring abroad needs to consider the implications of moving away from their family, friends, and social circle.
“Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” said Cacioppo. Population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health all the more important, he explained.
Although many people are happy in their own company, most people need some degree of social interaction on a daily basis. The research carried out by Cacioppo and his colleagues identified three core dimensions to healthy relationships – intimate connectedness, which comes from having someone in your life you feel affirms who you are; relational connectedness, which comes from having face-to-face contacts that are mutually rewarding; and collective connectedness, which comes from feeling that you’re part of a group.
Older people living alone aren’t necessarily lonely, Cacioppo pointed out. If they remain socially active, and engage with, and enjoy the company of, other people then the adverse effects of extreme loneliness don’t apply.
Older people moving abroad can avoid the consequences of loneliness by staying in touch with friends and family at home, taking part in family traditions including travelling home for important events where possible.
For people moving abroad for the first time there are plenty of expat areas in countries such as Spain, France, and Thailand, where foreigners tend to live. Moving to one of these areas, at least in the beginning, can help with the settling-in process. A common language and shared interests can help support you when you first move abroad and until you find your feet.