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Later Life Guide

Loneliness and Isolation

Portrait of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Library of Congress

In a 2018 AARP survey, roughly one-third of adults 45+ (and nearly half of all adults with lower incomes) reported feeling lonely. The most significant factors contributing to feelings of loneliness, according to that study, were: physical isolation and having a smaller network of friends and family. Other significant factors were being single, being depressed or anxious, or chronic illness. It's a feedback process, though - chronic loneliness can lead to chronic health problems.

The good news, though, is that we can take steps to cope with loneliness and to reach out for social support.

Short-term Depression vs Chronic Depression

While being depressed is not the same thing as being lonely, they are certainly related - and they reinforce each other in negative ways. Like being lonely, being depressed is a matter of concern only when it becomes chronic (feeling that way all the time for months.) Here are some ways to tell if feeling low has slid into chronic depression:

Depression can have many of the same ill effects as lack of sleep - problems paying attention, making decisions, or with memory; fatigue and lower immune function; difficulties making decisions or taking action. That can make it more difficult for the depressed person to get treatment.

If you believe a loved one is depressed, here are ways you may be able to help - or help them to help themselves.

When Depression and Illness Come Together

Clinical or major depression has complicated relationships with other illnesses. Besides making it difficult for people to seek treatment, it can also be tied to poorer prognosis for any disease.

Current research also suggests that depression may be a symptom of cardiac disease or dementia (and perhaps other diseases as well).


Certainly if someone has a serious illness (like cancer), or has chronic pain, they may become depressed as a result. Besides other treatments for depression, better pain control or palliative care may be needed.


But then there are some medications that have depression as a common side effect. If you think this might be the case, DON'T STOP taking that medication, but talk with your health care team to see if adjusting the dose will improve mental state.


Depression can become a serious problem for people who are caring for others. If you, or family members or friends are struggling with this, please see the guide for Caregiving Resources (in this series) for links to sources of support.

Bottom line: chronic or major depression is NOT a normal part of aging, and it can be treated.

Thinking about ending it?

If you are - or a loved one is - thinking about suicide, reach out for help. 

Help is available in Santa Clara County several ways, including:

  •  Free and confidential Suicide & Crisis Hotline, available 24/7. Call 1-855-278-4204 or text the word: RENEW to 74174
  • Mental Health Urgent Care Center open Mondays through Sundays 8am - 10pm.  Call: 408-885-7855 or walk-in to 871 Enborg Court, San José CA 95128.


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