The hidden health risks of loneliness in men
Maintaining friendships can be hard – there sometimes just isn’t enough time given our day-to-day responsibilities. But it’s important to make time to socialize. That’s particularly true if you’re a middle-aged man: A new study suggests loneliness is as much of a health risk for men as smoking or being overweight.
The study, published in Psychiatry Research, followed more than 2,500 middle-aged men (ages 42 to 61) for more than 20 years. The findings show loneliness increases cancer risk by 10%, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, lifestyle and other risk factors. Of the men diagnosed with cancer, men who were unmarried, widowed or divorced were more likely to die from cancer-related causes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults over age 45 feel lonely. The good news is that you can improve your situation. Here’s what you need to know:
What it means to be lonely
While all people experience feelings of loneliness at some point, not everyone has lingering feelings of despair associated with loneliness. Even people who are socially isolated and have few people to interact with regularly are not necessarily lonely.
According to the National Institute on Aging, loneliness is the distressing feeling of being alone or separated from others. You can live alone and not feel socially isolated or lonely, and you can feel lonely while in the company of other people.
Effects of isolation on your health
Loneliness can have negative effects on your physical, mental and cognitive health. The impact increases when feelings of loneliness result in not getting enough exercise, drinking too much alcohol, using nicotine or not sleeping well.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the health effects associated with loneliness include:
- Dementia & cognitive decline: Researchers find that loneliness is associated with a 40% increased risk for dementia.
- Depression: Feeling lonely can raise your stress level and interrupt healthy sleep, making you prone to depression.
- Heart disease: Loneliness is linked to a 30% increase in risk of stroke or coronary artery disease.
- Impaired immunity: Studies show that lonely people have more inflammation and a decreased antiviral response than people who aren’t lonely.
- Obesity: Many people turn to food and slide into unhealthy habits to combat loneliness.
- Premature death: Social isolation increases the risk of premature death from any cause by more than 50%.
Tips for lonely men
To lessen your loneliness, you may need to take matters into your own hands. Try these steps:
Evaluate your loneliness
Take note of when you feel the loneliest and what you are doing at the time. If those feelings set in each night after work, consider doing something that feels social a couple of nights a week. If weekends feel long and lonely, join a club that meets every Saturday or Sunday. Having a regular plan that involves other people can quickly foster or reignite friendships.
Identify what you enjoy
If you participate in an activity you enjoy, you’ll immediately have something in common with the people you meet. Consider:
- Adopting a pet: Pets can be a source of comfort and may open up new avenues for meeting other pet owners in the area.
- Staying physically active with group exercise: Join a walking club, train for a 5k or marathon with a group, or work out with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
- Taking a class: Learning something new can benefit your brain health and introduce you to people with similar interests.
- Volunteering: By joining a community cause or coaching your kids, you’ll meet new people and feel good about how you are spending your time.
Schedule social time for existing relationships
If work and family take a lot of your time, you may need to schedule time to connect with extended family and friends. You can reach out in whichever way makes you the most comfortable – whether in-person, by email, social media, a phone call or text.
Begin by keeping the social time short and simple. That way it won’t feel like a chore. Once you regularly reconnect with people you trust, you’ll be able to share your feelings and strengthen those relationships.
If you need help managing feelings of loneliness, reach out to your primary care provider.