In a recent, yet-to-be-published study, researchers report that golfers older than 50 live longer than people who don’t play the game. One reason, the authors speculate, may be obvious: Golf involves exercise, and exercise benefits the heart. But they offer another possible explanation: Golf’s a social sport, and getting together with others provides a positive for health.
Another study, published in November 2019, linked social isolation with memory loss among the elderly. Highly isolated men saw a decline in memory three times greater than men whose isolation the researchers considered average.
Both studies add to what experts recently have begun to learn about the impact of loneliness. Their timing couldn’t be better, says Teresa Murray Amato, MD.
“As the population ages, we’re probably going to see an increase in older men that don’t have a spouse and feel isolated,” says Amato, director of geriatric emergency medicine at Northwell Health in Manhasset, NY. “Isolation can have an impact on sleep, on depression, and on cognitive function.”
Amato points out that simply being alone does not necessarily mean you’re lonely. Some people thrive on their own. But if you feel lonely and isolated, you should pay attention. Amato’s biggest concern: suicide.
“The No. 1 most successful group in attempting suicide is single, older men,” she says. “Depression’s a real red flag for someone who’s single, older, and male.”
For many men, isolation may begin at retirement, Amato says. She says it is more than simply the loss of co-workers and camaraderie that explains the negative feelings that often arise.
“It’s the loss of a title and the loss of a purpose,” Amato says. “For some people, that type of life change can lead to depression or feelings of loss or grief, and sometimes that can snowball into being more isolated.”
She wants more primary care doctors and other physicians to add loneliness to their checklist of questions for older patients. “We need to start asking these questions. Not just do you live alone, but do you feel lonely and isolated?”