Biggest risk to ageing well is loneliness

Alison Ballance - Senior Producer

“Loneliness is a killer,” says University of Otago’s Yoram Barak. “At any age, but especially in old age.”

Associate Professor Barak is a psychogeriatrician in the Dunedin School of Medicine and at Dunedin Hospital.

He says the key to a healthy brain in old age is simple: good social relationships, eating well, moderate exercise, meditation and challenges such as listening to classical music.

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Yoram Barak says evidence shows that loneliness is a major health risk factor. He describes loneliness as ‘toxic’.

“Your chances of suffering from a stroke are about 30 percent higher if you are lonely,” says Yoram. “Loneliness will kill you. It will shorten your life expectancy.”

He says recent evidence also shows that experiencing loneliness in middle age triples the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in later life.

“Some people claim that loneliness is a much greater public health hazard than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure. And I don’t think that they are wrong.”

Yoram says that loneliness probably impacts our health by partially disabling our immune system.

“If you are lonely it probably means you are struggling with chronic pain, mental pain, and we know that chronic pain eventually erodes your immune system.”

Our brain, says Yoram, doesn’t cope well with social isolation.

“The brain can’t distinguish between physical acute severe pain of breaking a bone or being rejected in social circumstances.”

Yoram says the solution is simple: “we need to be pushing towards less screen time, and more people time.”

He says strong, loving and supportive relationships are key to ageing well.

“People in mid-life who have a supportive, important relationship that they felt would be there for them if things went bad in their life, age beautifully,” says Yoram.

Yoram says the quality of relationships is key, whether it is with a partner, friends or some other social group. His advice is to “really invest, lean into your relationships.”

More advice on how to have a healthy old age

“Change your nutrition,” says Yoram. “There are nutritional plans out there, funded and researched by the American government, which can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s disease by 55 percent.”

The MIND diet recommends lots of fruit and vegetables, especially leafy greens and berries. It also recommends plenty of nuts and legumes, and olive oil. It discourages red meat and cheese.

Yoram says lots of moderate exercise is good, and he adds there is recent evidence of the value of yoga and tai chi.

The “fourth leg” to his “table of brain goodness” is meditation or mindfulness. He recommends about twenty minutes a day, and says that it doesn’t matter where or when you do it. “You can do it jogging or even lying down in bed.”

Then there is brain exercise. Yoram says most commercial brain training programmes have no proven benefit, and he says there is also limited value in repetitive puzzles such as crosswords or Sudoku.

But he says there are plenty of things you can do to challenge your brain.

“Play bridge. And again it comes to the question of is it just the challenge of playing bridge, which is very complex, or is it that you need a foursome and you’re in a partnership.”

It turns out the key to ageing well is simple.

“Relationships, food, exercise and meditation – can’t get better than that.”

Biggest risk to ageing well is loneliness
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