The Villages is an enormous retirement community in Florida, with more than 115,000 residents, and with thousands of new homes recently approved for development.
The Villages markets itself as:
Their marketing makes it sound like there are ample opportunities for seniors to engage with neighbors and stave off loneliness.
This is important because there is a reciprocal relationship between social isolation and depression. An article in Aging Life Care Journal reports that “loneliness is known to be a major risk factor for depression, which itself accelerates functional decline and increases mortality rate.”
The Villages’ staff published a report on recognizing depression and encouraging its residents to be aware of depression symptoms.
It’s a real chicken-and-egg situation; it can be difficult to determine if loneliness is more responsible for depression – or the other way around.
The Link Between Loneliness and Inflammation, Stress and Chronic Illness
There are multiple ways that loneliness could contribute to depression. Let’s take a look at three of them.
Inflammation & Depression
Loneliness may increase inflammation, according to a 2015 study reported in Forbes. “People who reported being lonelier had higher biomarkers of inflammation, increased activity of inflammatory genes.”
Inflammation is the initial part of the immune response. It is part of the body’s process of healing and repairing damaged tissue or putting up a defense against viruses and bacteria.
“Chronic exposure to increased inflammation is thought to drive changes in neurotransmitters and neurocircuits that lead to depressive symptoms and that may also interfere with or circumvent the efficacy of antidepressants,” according to an article published in the Handbook of Experimental Pharmacology.
Put simply, when our brain ‘hears’ that our body is inflamed, we are programmed to feel down and tired with a sense of malaise, losing our appetite, tending to isolate ourselves socially, and generally wanting to crawl under a rock.
Chronic Illness & Depression
“One of the biggest risk factors for loneliness? Having a chronic illness,” writes Creakyjoints.org, a website for those with arthritis and similar illnesses. “To add insult to injury (literally), loneliness and chronic illness can become a vicious cycle with your pain isolating you, and the resulting loneliness then worsening your health.”
In fact, if you have a chronic illness, you may be almost three times as likely struggle with depression.
Stress & Depression
Loneliness may also contribute high levels of stress, another risk factor for depression. Just as strong friendships and a lot of social support reduces our stress levels, a lack of social support contributes to more stress.
Chronic stress increases the risk of developing depression and anxiety in some people.
Long-term stress may result in long-term changes in the brain, which could increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness like depression or anxiety.
As with inflammation, there is a connection between the immune system, stress and mental health. “During the stress response, the immune system is activated, helping to keep us safe,” says MQ Mental Health. However, while stress can keep us safe in the short-term, “a prolonged activation of the immune system is also linked to depression.”
Coping with Loneliness
John Grohol, Psy. D., co-founder and editor of PsychCentral, recently wrote that loneliness may be contagious:
“People who are lonely tend to be linked to others who are lonely, an effect that is stronger for geographically proximal than distant friends yet extends up to three degrees of separation (friends’ friends’ friend) within the social network. The nature of the friendship matters, as well, in that nearby mutual friends show stronger effects than nearby ordinary friends.
“As the researchers note in the study, lonely people tend to get more lonely over time not because of social isolation, but because they spread the feelings of loneliness across their social network.”
What can you or a loved one do to prevent loneliness? An article in PsychCentral suggests that seniors try a few different steps including volunteering, taking up a hobby, or adopting a pet. The Nurse Next Door blog offers a few more ideas about how seniors can prevent loneliness and depression, like gratitude practice and meditation apps; therapy using a light lamp, and even using weighted blankets, which offer a calming effect. They suggest calling the Friendship Line, a 24/7, toll-free crisis phone line for people aged 60 years and above.
It is important that both loneliness and depression be addressed. And while it may take real effort, older adults can break out of loneliness, and depression is treatable.
If your doctor includes antidepressant medication as part of your treatment plan, a pharmacogenomic test like the GeneSight® test can help inform doctor decisions on medication selection. The GeneSight test is intended to supplement other information considered by a doctor as part of a comprehensive medical evaluation. With traditional Medicare or Medicaid, the out-of-pocket cost for the GeneSight test for the patient is $0.
It might require effort to overcome loneliness but it is worth it to both be happier and healthier, and to avoid the additional struggle of depression.