How loneliness increases your mortality risk

As we get older, we’re forced to face up to the reality of death – our own, and those around us. For those with spouses that includes the prospect of losing your life partner, or vice versa.

For many, the thought of life without your ‘significant other’ is scary, and those concerns are not without foundation. Research has shown that loneliness can increase your mortality risk to at least the same extent as obesity and smoking and increase your risk of serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease.

The sense of loneliness after the loss of a life partner can be exacerbated for those whose social circle is small. A new study has found that loneliness is a greater challenge in widowhood than social isolation or lack of social support, and that widowed men suffer more than women.

As my own parents grew old, I always hoped that, when the time came, my father would go first. This was not in response to any studies I had read, but rather my own observations over many decades.

Read: What older Australians want you to know about loneliness

The dynamic, as I perceived it, between mum and dad was that dad very much relied on mum’s presence. It was not merely a case of dad relying on mum to perform the cooking and cleaning – although, as 1950s nuclear family parents, there was a strong element of this – but a sense of needing mum’s company.

My thought was that mum would enjoy a newfound sense of freedom for a few years after dad passed. Not that she wouldn’t miss him, but she wouldn’t have to worry about all of his needs.

I was wrong. After dad passed away in 2014, mum’s mental health declined quite rapidly. Dementia began to take hold almost immediately. There had been signs of it earlier – a loss of ability to do cryptic crosswords – but dad’s death seemed to accelerate the process.

One thing that sticks in my mind, remembering mum’s early days after dad’s loss, was her saying how much she missed him. Mum was never one to externalise her feelings, so I knew then how real her sense of loss – and loneliness – was.

Read: How storytelling is helping us better understand ageing and loneliness

A new study, published in the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, bears out my anecdotal observations. The study, co-funded by the Heart Foundation, recommends interventions to alleviate loneliness that are tailored to suit the needs of the bereaved – interventions such as supported socialisation, cognitive behavioural therapy and social prescribing.

Using data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey, the study looked at 749 widowed individuals alongside a comparison group of around 8000 married individuals and found that spousal death was strongly associated with increased loneliness for women and men.

The study also found that after the death of a spouse, the surviving partner increased their interactions with friends and family not living with the bereaved, but did not increase participation in community activities.

It also found that interventions focusing only on increasing social interactions are unlikely to alleviate loneliness following spousal death. It concluded that alternative strategies, such as helping the bereaved form a new sense of identity, could be beneficial.

Read: Ways to manage death anxiety

That conclusion rang true for me. What I had not identified before dad died was how much mum’s identity was tied to looking after dad and her kids. After we had all moved out, dad was her last tie to that identity. With dad gone, that tie was severed and loneliness set in quickly.

Mum moved to an aged care facility when her faculties declined, and whenever we visited, her first thought was always to make a cup of tea and see “what was in the fridge” for us to eat, although there was no fridge for her to open.

Her loneliness – linked I’m sure to a sense of loss of identity – was palpable, so this new study’s recommendation of introducing strategies to help the bereaved form a new sense of identity comes as a welcome development.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

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