Feeling lonely is never a good thing, and in elderly people it can even be harmful, says the president of the Spanish Geriatrics and Gerontology Society, José Antonio López Trigo. This doctor, who works with Malaga council, says the relationship between physical health and loneliness is something which needs to be taken into account.
"Living alone not only creates psychological problems which can lead to depression, but when someone is on their own they don't eat as well, so their nutritional state changes; that makes them more fragile and more likely to suffer cardiac and kidney problems and pain," he explains.
This means that what starts off as a question of loneliness can become a real health problem. Dr López Trigo refers to a study carried out by the University of Chicago which measured the physical repercussions of loneliness, and says it can cause as much damage to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. "The results of this study show that growing old on your own is as bad for you as smoking that many cigarettes," he emphasises.
This expert puts his finger on the crux of the problem when he says that "many people grow old on their own, but others feel lonely even when they are in company and that is almost worse, because it relegates and discriminates against elderly people just for being old. That is another way of making people feel alone, even though others may be physically in their company," he explains.
The arrival of old age is inevitable, but there are ways of growing old healthily and enjoying quality of life during those later years of life. Dr López Trigo says physical exercise is essential in order to age well.
On one hand, walking is highly recommended because it improves cardiovascular health, but it is also a good idea for people who are getting older to use a static bicycle and lift weights with their arms and legs because that benefits the body as well as the mind.
"These exercises serve to prevent dementia, in the same way as sudoku, word search puzzles and crosswords do," he says. Sit-up exercises are also very important for the elderly, because they help to strengthen the bones and prevent fractures.
From a medical point of view, there are other ways of helping the body to stay healthy, especially controlling cardiovascular risk factors in order to avoid diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol. Elderly people should also have a vaccine to protect them against flu and pneumococcus, as well as against measles, whooping cough and tetanus. "Don't forget, grandchildren can spread whooping cough to grandparents," says Dr López Trigo.
Another thing which is beneficial for elderly people is independence, so that they can grow older in the best possible circumstances. Dr López Trigo says that experts have designed some fantastic systems to take care of elderly people who suffer occasional health problems, but the same amount of attention has not been paid to chronic illness and the decompensations of illnesses from which elderly people suffer.
"These intermediate types of care are the ones we have not developed sufficiently. People of the third age need integral social and medical rehabilitation, " he explains. "We have to take into consideration that we are not talking about an occasional health problem, but about aspects related to health, company and loneliness. Socially, things have changed now. People no longer live as extended families."
This expert in geriatrics says that people are living longer nowadays, but that takes its toll, in the form of being more dependent and needing more care in the final stage of life.