Public health experts are starting to talk about a new epidemic impacting millions of Americans: loneliness and social isolation. Around one-third of U.S. adults over the age of 45 are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness. This is particularly startling because some experts say the health risk associated with a lack of social connections could be greater than obesity.
While older adults are more susceptible to feelings of solitude, it is something we all, no matter our age, can be mindful of.
The most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined.
As a kid, making friends was as easy as finding common ground on the playground. However, as an adult, your mindset becomes a bit more complicated — allowing fears and doubts to creep in can get in the way of new social connections. One study even found that social networks tend to peak at age 25, with friendships steadily decreasing from there.
One way to help combat loneliness and maintain adult friendships is through fostering social connections within your community. While the thought of putting yourself out there and making new social networks can be intimidating, there are some low-stress ways to build fresh connections (while keeping existing friendships strong) to help reduce your risk of social isolation.
- Make connections within your immediate community. Stopping and saying hello to your neighbors might have a positive impact on your health. In fact, 61% of those who have never spoken to their neighbor reported feeling lonely, compared to 33% of those who did, according to AARP research.
- Find time to volunteer. Pick out a cause or organization you feel passionate about, and donate some time and energy. It is a great place to meet other like-minded people, while working on a specific task together. If you’re feeling nervous about jumping in, invite a friend along and have fun together.
- Get outside. Finding time to be outside is a great way to be engaged with your community and build connections. Go on a walk or run around your neighborhood – you just might meet a new neighbor or find a restaurant you could try with a friend.
- Don’t go overboard with screen time. While we are in the midst of the social media age, don’t let “liking” social media content be mistaken as a way to curb social isolation. This impulse can often be hard to fight, as those who are socially isolated, tend to turn toward isolating activities like surfing the web or watching TV to cope with their loneliness.
- Practice self-kindness. If you are feeling lonely, it might be easy to blame yourself and have negative thoughts. Instead, consider trying to focus on the positive things going on in your life. It is important to understand there are times when laying on the couch and binge-watching your favorite show is OK. Try and strike a balance and don’t beat yourself up over needed alone time.
If you feel like loneliness or social isolation are impacting your life or that of a loved one, contact your doctor, as there are many professional resources that may help.