How Chronic Illness Can Lead to Loneliness

Humans naturally thrive in a community setting with shared norms, values, customs and identity. Without those connections, we may begin to experience the universal emotion of loneliness. According to Psychology Today, researchers define loneliness as an unpleasant experience when a person’s network of social relationships is deficient either qualitatively (lacking intimacy) or quantitatively (lacking overall interaction). There are also two types of loneliness: social loneliness refers to a lack of community or friends, while emotional loneliness refers to a lack of strong family connections. 

In older adults, chronic illness can lead to loneliness and social isolation as they are more likely to stay home rather than get out and socialize. In fact, 25% of adults age 50 and older experience loneliness and isolation. They are also more likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia, making it difficult to maintain those connections. Loneliness can increase anxiety and is associated with a decreased sense of self-worth in addition to many adverse physical effects on the pulmonary, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, musculoskeletal and psychiatric pathologies. 

The Isolation of Chronic Illness

Chronic diseases are conditions that last one year or more and require ongoing medical attention or limit activities of daily living, such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. There is also frequently the presence of mood disorders, inflammation throughout the body, physical limitations that interfere with work, severe fatigue and poor gut health. These unpleasant symptoms and related treatments can interrupt our connections with others by removing the opportunity for interaction as it can be challenging to go to work or school and perform everyday tasks where we typically interact with others. 

Loneliness is often viewed as involuntary separation, rejection or abandonment by others. The fear of other people observing outward symptoms and the fear of disappointing them can contribute to the desire for self-isolation. As it increases, so does the negative perception of the chronic illness, making it more difficult to cope. 

Older adults are more likely to adapt to an everyday routine of being alone and subsequently feel overwhelmed during other outside activities. Approximately 25% of older adults suffer from depression, anxiety disorder or dementia in the United States, and about 5 million older adults deal with substance use disorders, according to Nursing2022. Several variables contribute to social isolation concerning chronic illness and loneliness, including hypertension, dyslipidemia, hyperglycemia, physical inactivity, obesity, alcohol or tobacco use, retirement status, poverty, and limited access to health care.

Health Risks Associated with Loneliness

Loneliness causes a variety of negative effects on both physical and mental health. It usually predicts increased depression and changes the functionality of the brain. A lonely person will see the world as more threatening and therefore expect and remember more negative social interactions over positive ones. Additional effects on the body include:

  • Alcohol and drug misuse
  • Altered brain function
  • Alzheimer’s disease progression
  • Antisocial behavior
  • Cardiovascular disease and stroke
  • Decreased memory and learning
  • Depression and suicide
  • Increased stress levels
  • Poor decision-making

Tips to Prevent and Overcome Loneliness

Loneliness can become overwhelming and feel impossible to beat, but there are a few things you can do to be proactive in the fight against it. Some simple changes involve diet, exercise or meditation. Also think about the relationships you do have and what they are bringing to your life. Here are a few other things to consider:

  • People tend to think their feelings are due to the chronic illness rather than the loneliness it can create. Start by identifying and acknowledging loneliness so that you can move forward with a plan to mitigate it.
  • The quality of your relationships matters rather than the quantity. Focus on having a few close friends and establish meaningful relationships with them, whether in-person or online. A supportive social network helps protect older adults from depression and anxiety, decreases the likelihood of disease, and increases their overall lifespan.
  • Embrace the micro-moments of positive connection, such as thanking the delivery person at your door or a smile to the person at the grocery store. The more frequent these interactions become, the perception of illness and quality of life will improve.
  • Try joining a group or starting one of your own where you can connect with people who may be facing similar issues.
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in nutrients and get in as much exercise as your body allows. Even 10 minutes of activity per day provides benefits to your overall health.
  • Explore stress-relief activities such as meditation, journaling or aromatherapy.
  • Ask for help when you need it from family, friends or professionals. 

When to Seek Help to Cope with Chronic Illness

You should seek help from a professional if you feel like any of the following sources are causing you excess stress in your life and contributing to feelings of loneliness: 

Sources of stress:

  • Your chronic illness.
  • Uncertainty about the future.
  • The unpredictability of the disease.
  • Disability.
  • Financial difficulties.

Stress symptoms:

  • Irritability and difficulty in relationships.
  • Anxiety, tension, sadness.

Local Resources in KC

Chronic diseases are the leading causes of deaths and disabilities in Clay County and Missouri. Kansas City offers many great resources for those dealing with chronic illness, feelings of loneliness and self-isolation. Older adults who stay active and have regular social interactions experience a lower incidence of various chronic diseases. Below are just a few options available to those in the Kansas City area to help keep you healthy.

  • Turning Point offers research-based programs that foster practical skills that increase resilience for those living with chronic illnesses. They host classes, programs and activities supported entirely by donors.  
  • North Kansas City Hospital hosts 15 different support groups for those with chronic conditions to share personal experiences, discuss treatment options, express worries, receive advice and find new coping strategies.
  • YMCA of Greater Kansas City offers a prevention and management program for chronic diseases. There are classes specifically designed for those battling arthritis, cancer survivors and Alzheimer’s research.

When underlying chronic illness interferes with your overall well-being, it may be time to schedule a visit with KC Primary Care. We offer a concierge medicine model that emphasizes personalized care along with accessibility and convenience. This structure is ideal for patients with chronic illnesses who need more frequent and longer visits with their medical professionals. If you would like to learn more about becoming a direct primary care member in Kansas City, give us a call today at 816-479-5222 or contact us now.


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