Woman over 50 sitting alone in her living room while reading
Geriatricians agree: The most dangerous thing you can do if you're over 50 isn't skydiving, crowd-surfing or embarking on a second-act career as a stunt performer. It's not even eating red meat, or avoiding exercise.
The worst thing you can do when you're over 50 is to socially isolate yourself.
Loneliness can obviously be emotionally, mentally and psychologically damaging, but it's terrible for your physical health as well.
Dutch-Canadian gerontology researcher Eddy Elmer explains in William J. Kole's The Big 100: The New World of Super-Aging that loneliness "causes a wear and tear on the body that becomes more pronounced over time."
Indeed, Dr. Rosanne M. Leipzig, an expert in geriatrics, palliative care and internal medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital, and the author of Honest Aging: An Insider's Guide to the Second Half of Life, says that loneliness in older age can actually increase your risk of dying by a whopping 26 percent.
How Loneliness Impacts Your Physical Health
Loneliness can make individuals more prone to anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation—and this is compounded for people over 50, who may likely be subjected to ageism.
In terms of your physical health, loneliness can pose increased risks of heart disease and stroke, as well as greater risks of cognitive decline and dementia, Dr. Leipzig says. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social isolation and loneliness have also been linked to higher risks of type 2 diabetes and addiction.
Conversely, maintaining social relationships and connections, Dr. Leipzig says, has the opposite effect, lowering those risks and even helping you get better sleep (which in itself will reap plenty of health benefits as well).
Related: Social Connection and Dementia Risk
How to Combat Loneliness as We Age
According to Kole, loneliness—especially for seniors—is so widespread that some national governments, namely the United Kingdom and Japan, have actually "added 'ministers of loneliness' to their cabinets."
While most of us won't be able to get that sort of help, how can people over 50 develop and maintain relationships and avoid social isolation?
Related: Signs You're Losing a Friend, According to a Therapist
Make small connections and embrace 'weak ties'
Dr. Leipzig advises that the answer is probably much simpler than you might think.
"It may seem that just saying 'hi' is a meaningless gesture, but in actuality, it brings you into connection with another person, and this is often one of the things that you feel is missing when you feel lonely," she says. "Sometimes this is called a 'weak tie.' By connecting with people, even superficially, you have someone you can consider going to when you need support or engagement (the proverbial 'cup of sugar'), and vice versa—they will feel more open connecting with you."
These "weak ties" can strengthen over time as well, she notes.
"They can also result in introductions to new social groups and networks and can further diversify your social ties. Studies show that the greater number of 'weak ties' a person has, the lower one's sense of loneliness." While obviously having strong ties helps a great deal, Dr. Leipzig says, small gestures and connections with acquaintances can reap rewards.
Related: 102 Ways To Make Friends as an Adult
Reach out to your 'strong ties'
While acquaintances are lovely, stronger ties, like with close family and true blue friends, are key to staying emotionally, physically and psychologically healthy as we age. Maintaining friendships isn't always easy (we're all so busy!), but it is crucial.
"It takes time to develop a deep friendship, but it starts by taking the lead in reaching out to friends and suggesting you get together," Dr. Leipzig advises. "Don't wait around for someone else to take the first move. Just reaching out and starting the connection can improve your mood."
You don't even necessarily need to make an in-person plan, she says, so much as revealing that the other person is needed, wanted and loved—just like you want to be.
"Letting someone know you 'need to talk' can open the door to a deeper bond, so long as you don't overburden others with your needs," she says. "Another way to strengthen bonds is to ask for advice or help with a problem or project, show an interest in what someone else is doing and spend more time together."
Give back to develop new relationships
Making new friends isn't easy for everyone, especially introverts or people with anxiety, but it isn't impossible. One way to do this, Dr. Leipzig says, is to actually focus on something you are interested in and passionate about versus specifically where or how you think you'll meet others.
"Find something you're interested in and show up," she says. "Volunteer—whether at a non-profit organization, a class or the community garden. You'll know that the other people in the room at least share a similar interest with you and that is one of the surefire ways to spark a new friendship." Volunteering also has the benefit of helping you feel good about giving back.
Another pro tip, especially if you're on the shy side? Dr. Leipzig points out, "If it's a new group, everyone in the room is 'new,' and it can be easier to strike up conversations and new friendships."