The Health Risk Of Social Isolation To Older Adults


Social distancing can be an added stress that adversely affects older adults' mental health. Texas A&M experts offer ways to cope.

As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, people are asked to stay home to prevent widespread transmission of the disease. For many, this practice of social distancing can be trying on stress and mental health, and this is particularly true for older adults and those with underlying medical conditions, who, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are at a higher risk for severe illness.

Even before social distancing mandates, a 2018 National Poll on Healthy Aging found that 34 percent of respondents age 50 to 80 felt a lack of companionship and 27 percent felt isolated. Social isolation focuses on quantifiable measurements like a person’s social network size and access to resources, transportation and information, and is rarely caused by a single event for the aging population. Poor physical health, mental health issues and major life events like retirement and major losses are just a few select causes.

“Many people don’t realize or know that social isolation poses health risks that are comparable to smoking and being physically inactive,” said Marcia G. Ory, co-director of the Texas A&M Center for Population Health and Aging.

Stress can manifest itself in different ways, particularly during times of infectious disease outbreaks. According to the CDC, these include:

  • Worrying about personal health and the health of loved ones
  • Changes in sleep, eating and activity habits
  • Difficulty sleeping that can include nightmares and upsetting thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Worsening of chronic health problems
  • Feelings of disbelief, anxiety and fear
  • Increased substance abuse

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