Loneliness Can Lead to Health Problems

Why friends are so important in later life

Wednesday mornings are all about spending time with friends over coffee and eggs for Frank Colvin, 66, of Warwick, NY. The former teacher has breakfast with about 25 men from his retirement community, at a trading-post-turned-restaurant called the Country Dream, to talk politics, travel, hobbies and grandkids.

Colvin’s crew is a ROMEO Club: Retired Old Men Eating Out. The organization has chapters across the country.

“Our wives had plenty to keep them busy, with their own book clubs and ladies’ lunches, so I said, ‘Let’s do something for the guys,’” recalls Colvin, who started the local chapter. “Having regular breakfast meetings helps us to get out of our comfort zones and learn new things.”

If one of my buddies needed me at 3 a.m., I would get out of bed to help them out.
–Frank Colvin

Indeed, their ROMEO Club has sparked the men to organize many activities, from group bike rides to bocce ball teams to senior day trips. The camaraderie has helped Colvin make the most of his retirement.

“It’s more than doing things together. My friends are like my extended family. I share their joy whether they win at bingo or have a new grandchild, and their grief when they’re sick or have lost a wife,” he says. “We’re not on second base anymore with lots of time—now we’re on third base, heading home. Our bonds get stronger with age. If one of my buddies needed me at 3 a.m., I would get out of bed to help them out.”

Why Friendships Matter

Colvin may instinctually know what research has proven: friendships may be the key to delaying serious health issues and even death. Making time to nurture existing friendships and to build new ones isn’t just feel-good stuff, because having close relationships is one of the most important predictors of a longer, happier, healthier life. Chronic loneliness and not feeling connected can, in fact, up your odds of everything from heart disease to depression, dementia and sleep problems.

Studies reveal that lacking friends can be more harmful to your health as you grow older than lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, obesity and skipping exercise. In fact, a 2005 Australian study of more than 1,000 people age 70 and older, done over a 10-year period, found that those who had a close circle of friends lived 22 percent longer than those with the fewest pals. Friends had a bigger influence on lifespan than having a close family network, which didn’t have any impact on participants’ longevity.

Moreover, a 2010 analysis of 148 studies, which had involved more than 300,000 people from around the world, found that those with close relationships were 50 percent more likely to be alive at the end of the study. A lack of friends is as harmful to your health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day—and it’s twice as harmful as obesity.

Tough times may make women more likely to either tend to children or connect with other women.

Women’s friendships are so important to their health and happiness that female friendships may be part of a biological safeguard against stress called the “tend-and-befriend” effect. While decades of research done on men found that stress primarily triggers the fight-or-flight response, a 2000 study from UCLA discovered that tough times may make women more likely to either tend to children or connect with other women, releasing more of the bonding hormone oxytocin for a calming effect.

“Having friends you can talk to about illness, relationships and other issues that you might not feel as comfortable complaining about to family relieves stress and anxiety to have a huge impact on health,” says Susan Newman, PhD, social psychologist and author of the newly re-released Little Things Long Remembered (October 2014).

This is not to say that men can’t benefit from friendship as much as women.

“Both sexes need platonic intimacy in their lives, but as a culture we haven’t given men as much permission to seek a deeper level of intimacy from their friends,” says Shasta Nelson, founder of Girlfriendcircles.com, a women’s friendship matching website in 55 US cities, and author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends (2013). “Many men rely solely on their wife for intimacy, but it’s not healthy to depend on only one person to fulfill your deeper needs for connection—especially because we won’t all live to be the same age.”

From her research, Nelson finds that men often don’t feel their friendships are as weighty as women’s, and that they often want their friendships to be deeper.

Colvin can attest to the benefits of venting with his ROMEO Club.

“Our priorities have changed quite a bit. Twenty-five years ago I would have been saying to my buddies, ‘Look at that girl with the great legs,’ and now we talk about what kind of pills we take,” Colvin laughs.

And friends help keep you moving and your mind active—you’re much more likely to join a class or go for a walk if you know that you have a friend waiting for you.

“This goes a long way towards alleviating depression and isolation that can lead to all sorts of health issues,” Newman says.

Putting in the Work

Building real friendships takes time and effort. There are certain life stages—attending college, parenting young kids or being in the work place—when it’s naturally easier to make friends because you’re exposed to many, like-minded people in similar situations. However, you may find it’s harder to make or maintain friendships later in life because of changing circumstances.

“There are many factors that can impact friendships in your later years, such as retiring at different times, moving closer to grandchildren, more energy spent caring for aging parents and illness that makes you less mobile and therefore less able to meet friends,” Nelson says.

Kathy Barone, 62, a retired administrative assistant at a community college in Syracuse, NY, found it tough to keep in touch with her work friends once she retired because she was no longer seeing them in the office every day. Plus, caring for her mother after a stroke took up time that she says she would have otherwise spent socializing.

Such challenges—coupled with the fact that research shows we replace about half of our friends every seven years—can lead to feelings of loneliness. Not to mention that a huge number of older Americans today are single, including one-third of people ages 45 to 63. Divorce is also rising and affects one in four people 50 and older.

Getting online might be one of the least intimidating ways to meet like-minded people.

“Loneliness isn’t a feeling to be ashamed of, but simply a way for your body to know that you need more connections, just like hunger means you need food,” Nelson says.

For Barone, keeping in touch with her former work pals required more effort than it did when she was seeing them in the office daily, but she realized how important it was to maintain those friendships. So a group of six now commits to meeting at a restaurant every month—and it really helps.

“Even though I have less time to spend with my friends now that I’m caring for my mother, it’s not hard to make it a priority to take an hour out for lunch, and reminiscing about old coworkers or hearing about my friends’ grandkids or vacations helps me remember to relax and laugh,” she says.

Finding New Friends in Later Life

Sometimes your changing life circumstances mean you have less in common with the friends of your youth. Losing old friends due to death, divorce or moving becomes more common as you grow older as well.

Getting online might be one of the least intimidating ways to meet like-minded people. For example, the fastest growing demographic in GirlfriendCircles.com is actually women over 55. Or both sexes can search out a local group that matches their interests at MeetUp.com. Here you’ll find everything from knitting circles to book clubs to walking groups.

Shana Greene, 64, of Seattle, WA, says joining a group centered on an interest or passion can be life-enriching and bring you meaningful friendships.

“As you get older, it’s really important to expand your interests in order to keep growing, so I suggest volunteering or organizing a writing or travel group. Whatever you feel strongly about, getting involved in a related activity will help you meet a group of like-minded people. For me, I’ve always been interested in the environment, and that’s how I came to find my friend Helen, who enriched my life more than any other.”

Greene met Helen Venada when they both lived on San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington. Venada had set up a magazine exchange program in their local post office so people could swap titles instead of tossing them, and Greene got involved with the program.

“I walked up to her and said it was a great idea, and we went to lunch that very day,” Greene recalls.

Both activists by nature, they bonded over their desire to make a difference in their community. They started ecology classes for kids and recycling programs, and helped remove 400 tons of toxic waste from the islands.

When Greene got divorced and moved to Seattle, the pair kept in touch between visits with Friday night phone dates. When Venada became terminally ill, it was Greene who was there by her side, helping her children bring her home from the hospital, watching silly sitcoms together and sharing stories from their collective memories.

“I was there when she passed, and her family cremated her with all these letters I had written to her when she was sick about what a remarkable person she was,” Greene says. “I’ll never replace her friendship, but her passing makes me appreciate more than ever all of the friendships that have enriched my life, and the new ones yet to come.”

Keeping in Touch

Once you’ve built a friendship, don’t let a lack of mobility or a move prevent you from maintaining those connections. Just as technology can help you make new friends, it can also make it easier to keep in contact with your existing friends.

When Frank Colvin moved to his retirement community in New York, he left friends behind in Paterson, NJ. Distance made it tougher for impromptu get-togethers with his old buddies, but technology has helped them all keep in touch.

“We constantly touch base with each other through emails and Facebook,” he says. “I got rid of my flip phone this July when my wife got me an iPhone, and I love using Facetime. I can call people from Mars on this thing.”

Still, don’t let the convenience of social media outlets such as Facebook be a replacement for face-to-face interaction. The Internet doesn’t allow for the depth of shared experiences, such as laughing together, that real-life interactions do, or the power of touch to communicate a deeper bond. In fact, a 2013 State-of-Friendship-in-America report from Lifeboat.com found that there is no correlation between people’s Facebook usage and their overall friendship satisfaction or number of close friends.

“Relying only on Facebook to maintain a friendship is not as rewarding as also supplementing it with real-life face time,” says social psychologist Newman. “It’s hard to get the same feeling of caring from a computer screen because you’re missing the spontaneous laughs, warm hugs and knowing nods.”

Colvin, for example, makes an effort to meet up with his old neighborhood pals in New Jersey a few times a year in addition to regularly connecting on Facebook. He says visiting is so enjoyable in part because it leads to reminiscing about shared memories.

“Some of us have known each other for 60 years, so it’s nice to get together and talk about old times,” he says. “You only come this way once, so try to make and keep as many friends as you can while you’re here.”

One More for the Road? Maybe Not

Alcohol affects your body differently when you’re older

Baby boomers are working harder and playing longer than previous generations—and toasting life to its fullest at the end of the day. But for many, it may be time to think about holding back a bit as we pour the next cocktail. Even a seemingly temperate drink can become difficult to metabolize as our physical and mental states change with the years.

Most of us are fine to imbibe, in moderation, in midlife and beyond. And many of us happily do so. Ron Genovese, 75, of Warwick, NY, was in the alcohol sales business for decades before he retired, and he says people 50 and older were among his biggest buyers.

“I see it now in my retirement community, where you can hear corks popping around the neighborhood at 4 p.m.,” Genovese says. “I have friends here who say they drink more now than when they were younger because they’re retired and have less responsibilities and more time on their hands. I also see older people who don’t want to take medications for physical ailments such as pain, and so they think having an extra drink or two will help relieve it.”

Indeed, older adults may drink alcohol for a wide variety of reasons. In addition to the pure enjoyment of a nightcap or toasting with friends, boomers may turn to alcohol to take the edge off life transitions such as retirement or an empty nest. They may use it to cope with the stress of caring for aging parents, grief from the loss of a spouse, feelings of depression or anxiety, or pain, insomnia and other health issues, says Joseph Nowinski, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of If You Work It, It Works! The Science Behind 12 Step Recovery (2015).

For many people, hangovers get worse with age, even if the amount they drink remains the same.

The recommended drinking limit for both men and women ages 65 and up is no more than three drinks per occasion.

“But I would recommend sticking closer to one or two—and no more than seven per week,” says Alison Ahern Moore, MD, professor of medicine and psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “The majority of older adults who regularly drink one glass of alcohol on most days can continue to do so safely, while those having more than that should assess with their doctor whether their alcohol intake is healthy for them. It really depends on the individual, the medications they’re on and the amount they drink.”

Aging Bodies Can’t Handle as Much

As we age, our bodies produce less of the enzymes needed to metabolize alcohol, Nowinski says. We’ll feel the effects of alcohol with fewer drinks at 60 than we did at 40, and those effects will last longer.

In short, if that large goblet of cabernet you were able to drink with dinner at age 40 now results in grogginess the next day at 65, it’s time to use a smaller glass. And be forewarned: for many, hangovers get worse with age, even if the amount we drink remains the same.

“We’re not exactly sure why this is, but it might be due to less elasticity in our cardiovascular systems or that our liver becomes less efficient at processing toxins,” says George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

In addition, people tend to lose muscle mass and gain body fat as they grow older. This lessens the body’s ability to absorb alcohol and means the effects of even small amounts of drink will be felt more strongly.

Drinking also affects motor coordination for people of all ages, and this leads to accidents—not just vehicular. For older drinkers, falling after drinking is particularly dangerous, especially for those who live alone.

Age-related loss of bone density and an increased risk of osteoporosis cause the risk of fracture to skyrocket as we grow older. Half of arm breaks treated in the ER are for injuries near the top of the bone that are often linked to falls, and the highest number of these breaks have been seen in men and women age 45 and older, according to a 2012 study in Arthritis Care & Research.

And think about this—older women are as likely to die from a hip fracture as from breast cancer, according to 2009 research from New York’s Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.

At any age, alcohol can interfere with a number of drugs or make them less effective.

Drinking too much may also have a dramatic effect on memory, which is already susceptible to decline as people age. A study of more than 5,000 adults age 50 and older found that those who binge-drank (exceeded the recommended limit of three per occasion) twice a month or more were a whopping 149 percent more likely to suffer from memory loss compared to those who drank less, according to British researchers who presented their findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2012 in Vancouver, Canada.

If all of that isn’t enough, studies find that drinking more than the recommended limit increases the risk of cancers that are more common with advancing age, such as breast and throat cancer. And even moderate drinking may have a negative impact on aging-related conditions, such as gout, hypertension and ulcers, Moore says.

Such is the case for Michael Gennone, 67, of Hillsdale, NJ.

“Illness has caused me to change my drinking habits. When I was younger, I would go out regularly for beers with the guys after work, but that’s gone forever because I started suffering from gout in my 50s,” Gennone says. “I had to cut back on drinking because it aggravates my condition, and alcohol also interferes with my medications—I take drugs for blood pressure too.”

Beyond the direct impact on wellness, drinking can be dangerous for older adults who are on medications because our bodies become less efficient at metabolizing both medications and alcohol. People 65 and older use more prescriptions than any other age group—for example, 41 percent take cholesterol-lowering medications, according to a 2013 study in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

At any age, alcohol can interfere with a number of drugs or render them less effective, from sleeping pills to sedatives, blood thinners and antihistamines. Moore strongly advises talking to your doctors and pharmacist about possible drug and alcohol interactions—especially if you take multiple medications.

Drinking and Depression

Depression can make people more likely to reach for the bottle in an effort to escape the blues. Yet alcohol is a depressant in itself—it not only compounds symptoms, but also renders antidepressant medications less effective. This could be a particular problem for women as they grow older: nearly one in four women 50 and older takes antidepressant medication, according to America’s State of Mind, a report by Medco Health Solutions.

While many people do—and should—turn to antidepressants for their conditions, reducing or eliminating drinking first may significantly help depression, says David Oslin, MD, professor of psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. Continued drinking while on antidepressants can actually worsen mental health issues and put a person at greater risk of suicide.

Moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to reduce your odds of heart disease by thinning blood.
— Alison Ahern Moore, MD

A few years back, Oslin had a female patient in her late 60s who was taking a common antidepressant. When he asked about her drinking habits, she said her daily nightcap wasn’t much.

“I told her that even one drink can interfere with her medications, and there are other things she could do to relax, such as stretching or exercise,” Oslin says.

The patient agreed to keep track of exactly how much she was drinking and reported back the following week. It turns out she had grown dependent on alcohol without realizing it. Though she was only having a nightcap, she used a large glass without paying attention to how much she was actually pouring.

“It probably started as one shot 10 years ago, and over time her pours became more generous until it was the equivalent of five or even six shots,” Oslin says. (A serving of alcohol is 1.5 ounces of liquor, 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.) The woman stopped drinking altogether. Her symptoms improved so much that she was able to get off antidepressants.

But What about That Healthy Pour of Wine?

Alcohol has its health benefits too. A 2010 study from the University of Texas at Austin found that social drinkers who imbibed moderately lived longer than teetotalers, possibly because of the companionship.

“Drinking in moderation is a marker of social health, and research finds that people who drink with other people tend to be healthier than those who don’t,” Moore says.

Moreover, moderate drinking can prevent some common diseases and improve insulin sensitivity, which helps regulate blood-sugar levels.

“While drinking increases your odds of breast and throat cancers, most people are more likely to die of a heart attack,” Moore says. “Moderate amounts of alcohol have been shown to reduce your odds of heart disease by thinning blood.”

Taking Stock and Taking Steps

Like most things in life, the key to reaping alcohol’s benefits is moderation. While the majority of imbibers in their later years don’t have a problem, other drinkers actually fall into a gray area: people 65 years and older report binge drinking more often than any other age group—overdoing it an average of five to six times a month—according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most people who binge-drink don’t fit the definition of an alcoholic, which is someone who is dependent on alcohol and experiences withdrawal symptoms or who continues to drink despite doing harm to relationships, mental health or job.

But drinking heavily two or more times a month—socially or alone—may be a warning sign that it’s time to take stock. So is drinking to “help” chronic physical pain or anxiety, loneliness or even difficulty sleeping.

“I see many people in their later years drinking to ease physical conditions such as pain or insomnia, so if you suspect you’re doing the same, talk to your doctor about other ways to manage symptoms, such as with acupuncture or yoga,” says clinical psychologist Nowinski. “If you’re drinking because you’re lonely or bored—say, you lack a sense of purpose after retirement or are grieving the loss of a friend or spouse—there are healthier ways to cope.”

Nowinski had a widowed client pushing 70 whose kids lived far away. He started drinking more to deal with boredom and loneliness. The man realized he was overimbibing after getting a DUI for the first time ever.

“He said, ‘I have to do something different.’ In his younger days he made furniture, but it became too physical for him, so he used his woodworking hobby to make birdhouses instead and sell them at local farmer’s markets,” Nowinski says. “He didn’t sell a lot, but his hobby became a healthy way to cope with boredom as opposed to drinking, and going to the market helped him meet new people, which eased his loneliness.”

We don’t all have woodworking to fall back on, of course, and for many of us, that evening cocktail is a much-anticipated reward we’re loathe to lose. Determining how much to drink—and finding alternatives, if need be—will be different for each of us. Still, it’s worthy of some thought before pouring that second glass of wine.