New research demonstrates loneliness is a silent killer for older adults.

Loneliness is not defined by any objective criteria such as the quantity of one’s relationships or friendships. Rather, loneliness is defined by a subjective feeling of powerful social or emotional isolation and disconnection. As such, someone might be married and have friends yet still feel extremely lonely (read What to Do When You're Married but Lonely here).

University of Chicago Researcher John Cacioppo and his colleagues examined the impact of loneliness on the emotional and physical health of older adults. They found that loneliness disrupts sleep, increases depression, and lowers one’s overall feeling of subjective well-being. In addition, loneliness increases stress and levels of cortisol, increases blood pressure and depresses immune system functioning. Among their startling conclusions:

1. Loneliness increases chances of premature death among older adults by 14 percent.

2. Loneliness has twice the impact on premature death as obesity does.

3. Loneliness is nearly as strong a cause of premature death among older adults as having low socioeconomic status (which increases chances of premature death by 19 percent).

How to Combat Loneliness

If we wish to combat loneliness we need to maintain feelings of connectedness in three distinct areas (or to develop such connections if we lack them, and to deepen them if they exist but are insufficiently meaningful or satisfactory):

1. Intimate Connectedness: Having people in our life with whom we can be ourselves and who make us feel good about who we are.

2. Relational Connectedness: Having mutually rewarding face-to-face friendships that we engage with on a regular basis.

3. Collective Connectedness: Feeling accepted as part of a group, a team, or a community.

Cacioppo points out that older adults experience life changes that can interfere with these essential connection factors. For example, retiring to a warmer climate can be a problem if it takes us away from people with whom we have meaningful relationships. Further, physical declines involving vision and hearing can put elderly adults at risk for becoming isolated and lonely, as well as declines that limit mobility.

The Psychological Injuries Loneliness Inflicts

Loneliness represents a psychological wound that makes us feel emotionally raw and even desperate. Lonely people are so eager to avoid further rejection, they often end up unconsciously pushing away the very people who could alleviate their loneliness (read Why Loneliness is a Trap and How to Break Free here). Therefore, emerging from loneliness often requires a leap of faith as we have to put ourselves outside of our comfort zones to initiate new social contacts and deepen the bonds of existing relationships. Therefore one should take gradual steps and override avoidance mechanisms that seek to minimize risk and maintain isolation (e.g., "I won't know anyone at the part so why go?" or "Why should I call them if they haven't called me?").

Find out about my own experiences with loneliness on my TEDx talk here:

For detailed techniques and exercises to recover from loneliness, check out Chapter 2 (Loneliness: Relationship-Muscle Weakness) in Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).

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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch

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