Should You Take Health Advice From Pope Francis?



Vatican Radio is reporting that at mass on Monday, Pope Francis urged married couples in attendance to have children. “This culture of well-being from ten years ago convinced us: ‘It’s better not to have children! It’s better! You can go explore the world, go on holiday, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be care-free … it might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog,” the Pope stated. “Then, in the end, this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.”

Whether you are a dog, cat, or kid person, Pope Francis stumbled into a territory that has recently received scientific attention: the effects of solitude on old age. In February, psychologist John Cacioppo — the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago — and his colleagues presented research on this very subject at the 2014 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago.

Studying Isolation

The team’s research was presented during “Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging,” and explained that over a six-year period, loneliness was associated with an increased mortality risk in their sample population of 2,101 adults over the age of 50. UChicagoNews delved further into the results, explaining that the chances of premature death as a result of loneliness increased by 14 percent. Isolation can also increase blood pressure, lead to depression, interrupt sleep, and alter gene expression. This erodes the mental and physical well-being of the individual, contributing to a decreased quality of life.

In a larger study from 2013 published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers assessed responses to questions about loneliness and isolation that 6,500 Britons 52 years of age and older gave in the “English Longitudinal Study of Ageing.” The results again pointed to increased mortality for people who reported being socially isolated or perceiving loneliness.

Feeling isolated has emerged as an important factor as the body of research on this topic grows, the AARP explains. In addition to the previously mentioned risk factors, people who feel secluded from others may be more susceptible to the flu, infectious diseases, and could be more likely to develop early onset dementia.

Fighting Back

Organizations around the world are not brushing off these findings. The AARP Foundation has identified isolation (along with housing, hunger, and income) as a priority area where the group believes it can make an impact. AARP wants to study not only the detrimental effects of social sequestration, but also what the events are leading up to this point, and what steps can be taken to prevent it from becoming a problem.

In Canada, The National Seniors Council decided in 2013 that the priority for the 2013-2014 year was understanding the impact of loneliness for an aging population. “Social isolation affects the health and well-being of seniors,” Minister of State for Seniors Alice Wong stated. “That’s why it’s so important to address this issue by listening to seniors and consulting with key players from the non-profit, public and private sectors.” The UK has The Campaign to End Loneliness, an organization dedicated to raising awareness, increasing the scholarship on the subject, and creating services and opportunities to decrease isolation.

A Concern for All Ages

The Mary Foundation in Denmark broadens the scope, and works to reduce isolation and the perception of being alone among younger people as well — a reminder that although the Pope’s message and the research discussed has been centered on “old age in solitude,” isolation can be damaging to the health of people of at all ages.

In 2004, research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health found an association between social isolation and suicide for teenage girls. “Adolescent girls who are isolated from peers or whose social relationships are troubled are at greater risk for suicidal thoughts than are girls with close relationships to other adolescents,” Dr. Peter S. Bearman, professor of sociology and director of Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, said in a press release.

Deciding to have children or not have children is ultimately a private choice, and not the only factor determining loneliness as we age. However, it is important to be aware of how being alone can affect mental and physical health. This applies to every stage of life, but with a large segment of the population aging, understanding the effects are of a particular concern for the elderly. “We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65,” Cacioppo stated. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being, and early mortality.”

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