The government has recently published the statistics on suicides in the UK for 2011-13. On the graph showing the age-specific death rate there is an obvious first peak amongst young men. In addition there is a sudden second peak in men around the age of 80.
20% of the elderly in the UK show early signs of depression. The figure rises to about 40% for the elderly living in nursing homes. It is often associated with age-related disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, thyroid disease, cancer, diabetes or dementia. Other contributory factors are:
- Physical pain and illness
- Isolation and loneliness
- Bereavement or losing a loved one
- Being physically or sexually abused
The elderly face more of these problems than younger people but the diagnosis of depression is often missed in the elderly. When they do decide to end their lives it is not an impulsive act but one that has been well thought through.
In his talk ‘The lethality of loneliness’, John Cacioppo says that although we are individuals, our survival depends on our collective abilities, not individual minds. We are connected across our life spans to one another through a myriad of invisible forces. Just like hunger, thirst and pain are signals for self-preservation, so is feeling isolated. At an non-conscious level it puts our biology in a state of stress and hypervigilance to social threats. That can cause more negative interactions due to increased defensiveness, depressive symptoms and poor quality of sleep.
When I was a child there were very few people I knew who lived alone but now the number is huge. In 1980, roughly 20% people are reported to have felt lonely at any time in a year but now the percentage has doubled.
Studies have shown that loneliness increases the odds ratio for an early death by 45% not just in humans but also in isolated animals.
What can we do?
- Recognize it.
- Understand what it does to our mind and body.
- Respond – it is the quality and not the quantity of friendships/ relationships that matter. Becoming a part of something bigger than oneself by volunteering for a good cause, like visiting old people’s homes or adopting a granny and sharing good times and bad.
In short, let’s get connected.