All over the United States, geriatricians and other health and social service providers are growing increasingly worried about loneliness among seniors. Their concerns are fueled by studies showing it is linked to serious health problems.

Research shows older adults who feel lonely are at greater risk of memory loss, heart disease, strokes, and blood pressure. It is has been shown that loneliness and isolation are linked to physical inactivity and poor sleep, as well as elevated blood pressure and reduced immune function. This health threat, according to the AARP, is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

In a 2012 study, data showed that people who were lonely, whether or not they lived with others, or suffered from depression, were at heightened risk of death. Statistics show that 43 percent of people over 60 years of age feel lonely. Carla Perissinoto, the geriatrician and researcher who did the study at the University of California in San Francisco, says, “If someone reports feeling lonely, they are more likely to lose their independence and they are at greater risk of dying solely from being lonely.” There are many causes of loneliness including illness, hearing loss, or life changes such as retirement or the death of a spouse. She adds, “The usual social connections we have in younger life end up changing as we get older.”

A San Francisco-based nonprofit, Little Brothers, Friends of the Elderly, works to relieve isolation and loneliness among the city’s elderly by pairing them with volunteers.

Cathy Michalec, the organization’s executive director, explains that older adults often become less mobile as they age. Hilly sidewalks, crowded streets, and older homes can present difficulties for many seniors. “Those 50 stairs you used to be able to go up and down all the time, you can’t anymore. The streets are crowded and sometimes unsafe. Often our elders say it’s easier to stay in the house.”

Researcher Carla Perissinoto says that programs such as Little Brothers can help seniors build new social connections. “Maintaining connections is really important,” says Perissinoto. “It’s hard to measure or to quantify, but there is something real. We have tons of stories where we know it’s had an effect in peoples lives.”

Other efforts to address loneliness include roommate-matching services in various states. The Little Brothers program is also offered in Chicago and Philadelphia.

The AARP Foundation also recently launched a nation-wide online network to raise awareness about social isolation and loneliness among older adults. Connect2Affect.org allows people to do a self-assessment test and reach out to others feeling disconnected.

One of the best ways to alleviate loneliness among seniors who live alone is to provide companionship as a part of in-home care services. The personable caregivers on our staff do a wonderful job of making sure each client has interactive conversation and social engagement.

To find out more about Little Brothers, go to http://www.littlebrothers.org/.