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BEREAVEMENT AND LONELINESS: DOES IT IMPACT THE PROCESS OF AGING?

BEREAVEMENT AND LONELINESS

Aging in itself is an inevitable yet challenging part of everyone’s life with its flaws and benefits. As people age, their biological functionality degenerates, and a myriad of other noticeable physical changes occur. Moreover, as per the medical studies on centenarians living in the blue zones across the globe related to longevity, a sound mind in a sound body is the secret. It refers to having a purpose in life, connecting to the community, diet, and physical activity, contributing to society, giving a sense of belongingness, and reducing stress lead to a healthy body and mind.

tBereavement and aging:

Bereavement and aging

Our life partner is someone with whom we make countless memories as we grow old. By the time people reach their 80s or 90s, they have already witnessed a few deaths. An older person also has to deal with other losses in life, including the loss of friends, family members, and relatives.

Due to reduced social interactions and often restricted movements, an older person finds a confidante in their spouse. While the death of one’s spouse at any age is an emotionally shattering experience, the sense of loss is heightened, especially during old age. Sophocles had once very rightly said, “Not even old age knows how to love death.”

Conjugal bereavement and its concomitant loneliness disrupt the overall well-being of the elderly. Even though everyone has distinct ways to grieve death, an older person finds it very challenging to adapt to the new responsibilities that come with the spouse’s death. Learning new survival skills, especially during the grieving process, can seem impossible. Long-spanned grief has enduring physical consequences like sleeplessness and loss of appetite. Along with this, it also causes substantial psychological damage.

Emotional distress can lead to a decline in the functionality of the immune system and hence make the aged more susceptible to diseases, infections, and disability. 

Cellular senescence is a biological mechanism that is necessary to eliminate dead cells. Intense feelings of sadness, which often follow the death of a spouse, can speed up the process of ‘cellular senescence’ and cause premature aging. Telomere length is the indicator of both biological and cellular aging. Accelerated telomere shortening has previously been linked with stressful life experiences in childhood and adulthood. In a study at UCSF, shortened telomeres had been connected with higher levels of inflammation, chronic diseases, and premature death.

Loneliness and aging:

Social networks are likely going to thin out with age. Subjective loneliness resulting from the social isolation of the elderly resulting from losing family and friends often leads to heightened activities in the sympathetic nervous system. It includes increased inflammation and reduced sleep, all of which can stimulate neural and cardiovascular aging (Cacioppo et al., 2011).

Loneliness in the elderly poses risk for depression which is known to hasten functional decline and reduced life span (Mehta et al., 2002). It also affects the immune system, making the elderly highly predisposed to infections (Cohen S et al., 1997) and other risk factors like glucose dysregulation, dementia, cardiovascular diseases, and mood disorders.

The elderly can ward off loneliness by:

  • Being as active as their health permits. They can volunteer for community services, which will allow them to contribute something meaningful to society and feel worthy. 
  • If the elderly are staying away from home, alone, ‘one phone call a day can significantly change things. In addition to that, you can give them a weekly visit and spend quality time with the elderly in your family. 

Bereavement and loneliness are frequently interrelated yet two very disparate concepts. While one can function independently, they often accompany each other to speed up aging in the elderly. However, little effort and changes in their lifestyle can make a big difference and make it easier for them to cope with their age.

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