My grandmother passed away during the first year of the pandemic. After a previous fracture to her back, she had become more isolated and closed-in, and my family’s inability to see her during the pandemic did not help with that. We have attributed much of her serious decline and passing to that isolation and closed-off feeling she experienced as a result of COVID-19. I, like many, am afraid of growing old and finding myself alone – isolated. As so many continue to grapple with the long-term effects of the pandemic, I can’t help but wonder about the impacts of isolation and loneliness on health.
A collection of national studies has revealed that nearly one quarter of the elderly were socially isolated and a third of older adults experienced loneliness before the start of the pandemic. After the first few months of the pandemic, however, the University of Michigan reported that 56 percent of older adults endured the feelings of isolation. Women have been reported to be more socially isolated than men. And further, social isolation in women has been linked to a greater likelihood in the incident of cardiovascular disease. Postmenopausal women in social isolation who experience loneliness have as much as a 27 percent higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Beyond that, loneliness and social isolation pose other health threats including severe obesity, depression, and dementia (all of which affect women disproportionately more than men).
It has already been shown that heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in women, with numbers from 2017 estimating that one in five women may die from heart disease. So, knowing that isolation can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease is an important consideration. Women may find it necessary to engage the world in other ways, such as having a plan for the day, doing exercise, or having virtual engagement with others. Women should also speak to their doctors about concerns with social isolation to make a plan for community involvement and engagement. And it is important for women to know their risks for heart disease and its health outcomes as they age so that they can prioritize finding and remaining in communities that can keep loneliness and social isolation at bay.
Hopefully, as the crisis stage of the pandemic subsides, social isolation for elderly women may lessen, and this burden may decrease. But the evolving impacts from COVID-19 isolation serve as a cautious reminder about how the social conditions set by isolation and loneliness may have serious detrimental impacts on our physical health. As I feel joy and gratitude while reconnecting with my communities and the people I love, I also remember how difficult this may be for older adults, and I want to remind other younger individuals to maintain close relationships with the elderly people in their lives. A sense of connectedness has become more important than ever for concerns beyond physical health that are associated with loneliness and social isolation. With these bettered relationships, the lonely heart may be less isolated. And our reliance on and love for one another will not only reduce these heart health risks but will also promote healing from the pandemic and protect against the mental strain of other adverse situations abounding now.