The Current

Loneliness in Canadian seniors an epidemic, says psychologist

New research suggests that the experience of loneliness can be as bad for your health as smoking or obesity. With as many as 1.4 elderly Canadians reporting feeling lonely some are calling this a public health crisis that needs to be addressed.
Psychologist Ami Rokach says loneliness in seniors is a public health crisis comparable to obesity. (Rob Elliott/AFP/Getty Images)

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New research in Canada is showing that our elderly population is growing increasingly lonely and isolated. 

As spouses and close friends die, and children grow and have their own lives to manage, many older Canadians are finding themselves painfully lonely. 

So much so that some are calling it a public health crisis — one that affects everything from a person's mental health to their immune system. 

According to Statistics Canada, as many as 1.4 million elderly Canadians report feeling lonely.

It's a number clinical psychologist Ami Rokach knows all to well. He studies loneliness and says lonely seniors are a serious public health issue and related health effects are at epidemic levels.

"People who are 80 years and older say that up to 80 per cent of the time they feel lonely — it's a major problem," Rokach tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Research by professor Norah Keating suggests immigrant seniors in Canada from non-European countries are more lonely. (x1klima/flickr cc)

Loneliness itself doesn't directly cause health problems but Rokach explains that depression, desperation, feeling unappreciated and unwanted can cause seniors to neglect their health or resort to unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking, drinking or not taking their medication.

"I was shocked recently to find out that... up to 25 per cent of the elderly who fall and break a leg in the western world, die." Rokach says. "Those who are not lonely have a much better chance to survive that those who are lonely."

Rokach tells Tremonti that beyond depression and general psychological distress, health issues such as hypertension, sleep disturbances, and even dementia are worse when someone is lonely.

"Loneliness contributes even to death — it's that significant."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Willow Smith.