As a young person it is easy to assume that ailments suffered by older people are an inevitable part of growing old. Yet through my research for Community Network I have become more aware of the impact of loneliness on mental and physical health and the extent to which some of these ailments are preventable or can be slowed down. Studies have shown that loneliness can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and Alzheimer’s and one went as far as to suggest that social relationships increase ones chance of survival. Rather than accept these health problems as a matter of course there needs to be greater focus on preventive measures and a change in our perception of aging and old age.
I am reminded of a recent debate on Question Time on the problems affecting the NHS. The panel did not mention health issues, for example heart disease, which cost the NHS a staggering £16 billion in 2004 alone and is Britain’s largest killer. No one would argue that coronary heart disease is inevitable, after all the NHS recommends simple lifestyle changes to reduce the risk of developing it, choices that can dramatically alter the picture of our health.
If a young person pictures an old person, the image is often of someone suffering from a debilitating disease or ailment. This does not acknowledge a reality where many ailments are not merely the consequences of age, but consequences of lifestyle. This pessimistic perception of old age is deeply damaging because it creates a mind-set where many ailments are deemed unavoidable.
Challenging loneliness can improve the mental and physical health of people in older age so that the risk of depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and so forth is reduced. Telephone groups are a great way for older people to engage with one another and an effective preventative measure. At the very least they provide confidence and inspiration for older people who are physically able to connect with a local community.
Of course, there are innumerable cases where dementia has caused a sudden and aggressive decline in the mental and physical capabilities of healthy and sociable people. Not all conditions of health can be prevented, pre-empted or slowed down, sometimes they just take their natural course. But the research shows that community engagement does improve circumstances and have a positive impact on health for many older people, just as simple lifestyle choices improve life for the young.