Loneliness Can Kill You

Posted on July 31, 2018


July 29, AD2018

Some of us may be old enough to remember the opening line of Elvis Presley’s song, “Are you lonesome tonight…?” As it turns out, a lot of people are, indeed, lonesome. Loneliness apparently has grown to epic proportions in the United States. It affects all age groups to one degree or another, and it is gender neutral—both men and women suffer from it.

Some Research Findings on Loneliness

In assessing loneliness, researchers probe a person’s subjective feelings about his or her being alone. Examples of such questions might include:

  • “Do you feel left out?”
  • “Do you feel as though you lack companionship?”
  • “Are your relationships meaningful?”

At the 2017 Aspen Institute, a panel of experts discussed loneliness and its implications for society. One of the speakers, Dr. Carla Perissinotto, reported on her research findings regarding geriatric patients.  Her studies show that loneliness accounts for a 60 percent increased risk of functional decline, and a 45 percent risk of death among the aged.

In a 2018 research report released by Cigna, the insurer states that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. What’s more, in Cigna’s research, Generation Z (adults ages 18-22) and Millennials (adults ages 23-37) are lonelier and claim to be in worse health than older generations.

Loneliness and the Elderly

What causes these incidences of loneliness? For the elderly, there may be several determining factors. As people grow older, more and more friends and relatives pass on, leaving them with fewer members of these groups. Family size has decreased, leaving fewer offspring to be there for an elderly parent. With the increased mobility in our society, many children live far away geographically from their elderly relatives. On top of this, the busyness of the world keeps many of the younger generation time-challenged. They may not spend much time staying in touch with their older relatives. Now add to all of this the physical infirmities that can take a toll on a person. Some people simply can’t get out and about. Many elderly may have a difficult time using modern technology to communicate with others living at a distance from them. Even then, technology is no substitute for face-to-face interaction.

Young People Also Are Lonesome

What about the loneliness felt among the younger generations? The Cigna research indicates that interactions with others in person can mitigate the feelings of loneliness. The less frequently one has interactions in person with others, generally the lonelier one feels. Although the report states that social media use alone is not a predictor of loneliness, it seems that social media usage would have some impact here. The more time one spends on social media, the less time they have for face-to-face interaction. Similarly, the less time they will have to build deeper relationships with others, beyond the superficiality of social media. I think there’s more to it than all of this, and it hinges on findings from the Pew Research Center.

Relationship of Loneliness to Religion

Pew’s findings from its 2014 “Religious Landscape Study” show the importance of religion in one’s life, broken down by generation. The importance of religion increases with the older generations. Only 38% of what Pew calls the “Younger Millennial” group said that religion was “very important.” Of Pew’s “Greatest Generation,” 72% stated that this was so.

On the other hand, the 2018 Cigna study shows that loneliness decreases with the older generations. The Greatest Generation’s score for loneliness was 38.6, compared to Generation Z’s score of 48.31.  To be fair, the research doesn’t specifically say that these two sets of findings are causally related. Yet, research reported in Gerontologist showed that religious involvement can protect against loneliness. It is associated with higher levels of social support and social integration and lower levels of loneliness, regardless of health or personality type.

We Are Called to Relationships

We were created to be in community with God and with other people. The Catechism states that “…The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to Himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for…” (CCC 27).  Absent a relationship with God, we will have a hole in our heart that only He can fill—a big, empty, lonely hole.

Jesus tells us, “…You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” (Mt 22:37, 39). In any relationship, we need to spend at least a little time communicating with the other person, getting to know one another. In our relationship with God, this takes place in prayer. Praying daily, getting better acquainted with God, with Our Blessed Mother and favorite saints will pay off in a big way. These friendships will last an eternity.

Building friendships with other people, of course, requires that we go above and beyond texting and e-mails. Stepping out of ourselves to engage with others, and assist them, is what Christ wants us to do. It aids them, but it also helps us. Just think about how many times you or someone you know have stated or felt that you were the real beneficiary of something you did for someone else. Ultimately, the more involved we are, the less isolated, and the less lonely we will feel.

Helping the Homebound

As St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 12, we are all one body, with many parts. As parts of the body who can get out and about, we owe it to our homebound brothers and sisters to show them the light of Christ. It shouldn’t stop at weekly distribution of Communion, either. In recommendations from 1998, the Pontifical Council for the Laity stated:

Christ’s call to holiness is addressed to all his disciples, in every phase of human life…In spite of the passing of years, which risks dampening enthusiasm and draining away energy, older people must therefore feel themselves more than ever called to persevere in the search for Christian holiness: Christians must never let apathy or tiredness impede their spiritual journey.

At the parish level, what can we do to integrate our homebound brothers and sisters more fully and faithfully into our community? Besides weekly Communion, how else can we help provide them with social support?

Helping the Younger Generations

Besides having the home-bound who need us, many of us have adult children who have fallen away from the faith. Some of them may participate in other Christian services on Sundays. Some may be members of the infamous “nones” Bishop Robert Barron mentions frequently. Sometimes we hear from disenchanted young people that the folks they see in church are hypocrites. This is a challenge to us. It challenges us to live our faith in a way that shows the joy of the Resurrection to all we meet. And, of course, we should be willing to discuss the faith with them. We just don’t need to harangue them about it. Let God do His work in all of this. Remember that prayer is always effective. Just consider the case of St. Monica and St. Augustine, for example.

Get Involved: Help Others and Yourself

A recent Wall Street Journal article discussed a trend among Baby Boomers toward social disengagement. It turns out that Boomers are less socially engaged at their current stage in life than previous generations ever were. This leads to the concern that fewer interactions and social connections will lead to more rapid mental decline over time. In fact, research shows that not only loneliness, but also social isolation and living alone significantly predict mortality. Perhaps Boomers should be careful as to what they wish for in this regard.

In fact, as members of the Church Jesus founded, we all ought to discern where the findings of these loneliness studies are leading us. The research tells us we should get involved, not disengage. We should cultivate our faith, growing in our love of God and neighbor. Showing our love of neighbor can take many forms in parish life. Making connections at our local parish will create opportunities for that.  It also will enlarge our social network. Take advantage of the give and take of that support system, which from the first century, has characterized our faith. No one else can do this for us; we each need to make an effort. With God’s grace, and our efforts, we can experience the wonderful extended family our parish will provide to us. In doing so, we might minimize our bouts of loneliness and help alleviate the loneliness of others.

Mother Mary, pray for us that we might know the joy and love Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, pours out on us in times of loneliness. 

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