Health Decline -- A Danger of Aging Alone

The Health Dangers of Living by Yourself
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Living on your own these days? Welcome to an ever-growing club. U.S. census statistics show that 27 percent of all American households are now made up of a single person. And those percentages get bigger the older you get. A third of all Americans over 65 live alone. And because women outlive men, the percentages of women living alone are even higher; 46 percent of American women over the age of 75 live alone. As makes sense, loneliness and depression are probably the biggest issues facing those who live alone. But living alone puts your physical health at risk, too; studies have linked living alone with an increased risk of heart disease and other serious illness and with earlier death.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Most of the health issues associated with living alone can be overcome with increased watchfulness, safety precautions, and a plan for what to do when an emergency arises.

Here are four of the most common dangers that arise from living alone, and how to protect yourself from them.

Risk #1: Falling

In the past few years, several studies have linked living alone with a substantial increase in the risk of falling. It's not surprising that you're more likely to take a bad fall if there's no one there to help you. (Spending a lot of time alone also increases your likelihood of engaging in activities that increase your risk of falling -- more on that below.) Why is falling something to be so worried about? First, because as you get older, falls tend to lead to more serious injuries. According to the National Council on the Aging, 25 to 30 percent of adults over 65 who fall suffer a severe injury such as a hip fracture or head injury. And those serious falls can have disastrous or even deadly consequences. Forty percent of those who fracture a hip will never recover their independence, and a fourth will die within one year.

Clearing out clutter, installing handrails, and taking other safety precautions is an important first step in preventing falls. Another is to deal with any underlying risk factors, such as a medication that makes you dizzy or light-headed. Finally, consider installing or wearing an alert system that will notify someone if you fall; these have been a lifesaver for many people.

Risk #2: Making Medication Mistakes

Anyone can make a medication mistake. The problem is, when you're alone, there's only you to recognize that something's wrong. And medication mistakes are worryingly common among older adults. According to 2014 Medicare records, every year there are more than half a million drug-related injuries among Medicare patients that occur at home (as opposed to in the hospital). Medication mistakes can include taking too much, taking the wrong thing, or mixing two or more medications. And it's not some kind of rare, specialized drug causing these problems; it's the ones older adults take every day. One study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that four of the most common kinds of medications -- warfarin, insulin, blood thinners, and diabetes drugs that treat hypoglycemia -- were responsible for 7 out of every 10 emergency hospitalizations among seniors. Not included in these numbers is another kind of medication mistake: forgetting to take prescribed medication altogether, leaving illness untreated and symptoms unmanaged.

To prevent these disasters from happening to you, make sure you understand exactly how to take any medication your doctor prescribes. Even though it's a hassle to stand in line for a pharmacy consult, make sure you get those thorough instructions -- and warnings about any potential side effects -- before you leave the counter. When you're discussing a new prescription with your doctor, make sure she knows about all the other medications you're on, and ask her about interactions. And no matter how embarrassing, alert your doctor if you're a heavy or even moderate drinker. Many medications have dangerous effects when mixed with alcohol. Finally, if, like most of us, you're forgetful from time to time, consider using a pill-counting container to keep track of medication dosages.

Risk #3: Dehydration

There are a lot of big changes as we get older -- but there are small changes, too, that pose risks we don't even know about. One of these is a tendency to become dehydrated more easily. Dehydration in older adults is so common that more than 6.5 percent of seniors admitted to the hospital are found to be suffering from dehydration, statistics show. And this number represents only those so seriously ill they are hospitalized. The reasons you become dehydrated more easily are twofold -- your body isn't as good at storing water, and your sense of thirst becomes less acute. Other conditions, such as diabetes, can compound the problem, and many medications are dehydrating as well. Unfortunately, dehydration can be deadly.

So we need to drink more fluids as we age, but studies show we drink less. Often the problem is that drinking tends to be a social activity -- it's easier to remember to have a glass of water or iced tea when there's someone around to do it with, or at least someone who reminds us or hands us a glass. To combat this problem, we all have to learn to make drinking water a regular habit, whether or not someone's there to remind us.

Risk #4: Alcohol and Medication Abuse

The Centers for Disease Control has called alcohol and drug abuse among older adults "a hidden epidemic" and one of the "fastest-growing problems in this country." And statistics show the problem is getting worse every year. There was a 121 percent increase in ER visits for prescription medication abuse among older adults in the four-year period between 2004 and 2008. Unfortunately, it's all too easy to become dependent on any narcotic painkiller prescribed post-surgery or to treat chronic pain. The result: 18 percent of older adults with chronic pain either abuse or are addicted to painkillers, statistics show.

When it comes to alcohol abuse, living alone can worsen this problem, or trigger its beginning. Older adults who never drank excessively before may begin overusing alcohol to combat loneliness or boredom, or simply to make themselves feel better. And if you already drink too much, not having someone there to notice, nag, or make you feel embarrassed is going to let you drink more. Several studies have found that those who live alone are much more likely to die from alcohol poisoning, liver disease, and other alcohol-related diseases.

The answer, of course, is to get help if you suspect you might be drinking too much or overusing any medication. Read up on the signs of abuse and addiction, and notice whether your drinking or drug use is having negative consequences in your life. If it is but you continue to do it anyway, that's a sign you need to take seriously.

It's important to remember that there's also a direct link between alcohol and drug use and risk of falling. And beware: This risk is not just for those actually abusing alcohol and drugs. Even just one or two drinks can interact with another medication, contributing to a fall. Whenever you start taking a new medication, read the disclosures to see whether it interacts with alcohol. But don't just rely on published information; use your own experience as a guide, since everyone's metabolism is different. If you notice you feel woozy, dizzy, or overly sleepy after a cocktail or a glass of wine or beer, it may be a medication interaction that's responsible, and you'll need to discuss this with your doctor.

It's easy to see how living alone can have a negative impact on any health condition you might have. Studies show people with diabetes don't manage their disease as well when they live alone, and those with heart disease are more likely to miss the signs of a heart attack. In fact, one study found that people who live alone double their risk of serious heart disease. If you suffer a stroke alone, you're less likely to act fast and get the anticlotting treatment that's urgently needed to prevent long-term consequences. All of these contribute to the serious health toll of living alone.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio