I just turned 65.
My children have finally left the nest, and I relish my time alone. I have plenty of neighbors right outside my door to call on when I feel the need for some social contact.
So, even though I live alone, I am far from lonely. But there are those who live alone and feel it.
That’s a problem because chronic loneliness can kill you.
It causes tissue damage and inflammation that lead to Alzheimer’s, high blood pressure and heart disease. In fact, research has suggested that the effects of loneliness and social isolation are more detrimental to your health and wellness than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Not only that, but the emotional pain of feeling lonely is leading more and more older adults to seek help from someone they trust — their doctors.
And that’s putting them in a dangerous situation that may not be aware of: taking drugs that are especially risky for them…
Loneliness and dangerous prescriptions go together
According to researchers at the University of California San Francisco, older adults who self-identify as lonely are nearly twice as likely to be prescribed opioids for pain, and two-and-a-half times more likely to take sedatives and anti-anxiety medications from their doctors.
The researchers used data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, a population-based study of health and social factors.
They found that seniors who identified as moderately lonely or very lonely were eight to eleven percent more likely to use prescription opioids than non-lonely seniors.
And 23 percent of the “very lonely” group used anti-anxiety medications and sedatives — including anticholinergic drugs known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s — compared with only nine percent of those who said they were not lonely.
In addition to taking drugs that could steal their memories and their lives, these prescriptions are on the danger list for seniors for other reasons as well…
They can increase the danger of falls and other accidents that can leave seniors with life-threatening broken bones or fractures — not to mention drug dependency.
Dr. Ashwin Kotwal of the UCSF Division of Geriatrics says that, instead of prescribing psychotropic drugs for older adults who are lonely, doctors should be “social prescribing” to local resources in the community.
What is social prescribing?
There’s more to good health than getting a yearly checkup and taking medications.
Social prescribing is an approach that seeks to fill in the gaps by connecting people with community resources.
For seniors, especially, that may be the only prescription they need. That’s because, according to Dr. Kotwal, older people are more socially active than other age groups and frequently play major roles in community.
When they are not socially active, he adds, we need to recognize there is a problem. But the first step should be social prescribing instead of medication.
“We don’t want to pathologize loneliness. Most people experience loneliness at some point in their lives, but when experiences of loneliness persist for many months or years, it can cause physiologic changes, such as a ramped-up stress response, sleep problems, and even heart disease,” said Kotwal. “And, a lack of social contact can erode our social skills, making it more difficult over time to connect with others and creating a vicious cycle.”
When health professionals practice social prescribing, they refer patients to sources in the community to improve their health, rather than turning to drugs as a first course of treatment, or risk the pitfalls of polypharmacy (when someone is taking multiple medications and sometimes from different doctors).
For example, study after study has shown that music is medicine. One study proved that singing in a choir could increase one’s lifespan by fifty percent!
How you can advocate for yourself
Social prescribing is a practice that is becoming more and more common in Great Britain, as well as in Ireland and the Netherlands, although it’s not yet common in the United States.
Still, you can ask your doctor to refer you to community-based services that will help you improve your health. Many hospitals or medical groups are associated with social workers who can help seniors make community connections if they need assistance.
For example, a cooking class could help you manage your diabetes diet better — and make new friends and acquaintances. Don’t like cooking? Consider a gardening or art class, or other group activity that focuses on your interests.
For someone with social anxiety, this can be a way to spend time in the company of others and only start a discussion when you feel comfortable.
The key is to be open to all the non-pharmaceutical possibilities that exist for improving your health and to communicate openly with your doctor about wanting to go this route before resorting to harmful medication.
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