PUMPING IRONY: Can a Doctor Cure Your Loneliness?

A new study suggests that older folks go to the doctor more often not because they’re sick, but because they’re lonely.

Jayani Jayawardhana
Jayawardhana: Loneliness drives many of the elderly to the doctor.

About once every year, usually in the early spring, I pedal a few blocks north from my home to pay a visit to my “regular” doctor. He’s a fine fellow of Indian descent who no longer tries to convince me to get a colonoscopy or a prostate screening. We have an understanding about those kinds of things. I’m there simply to get my overactive wax-generating ears cleaned out. Once that’s taken care of, I’m outta there.

Every other Thursday, on the other hand, I happily pedal another couple of miles farther north to visit my acupuncturist, whether I have a specific complaint or not. She’s a nice young woman who shares many of my idiosyncratic views about health care. She takes my pulses, sticks some needles into my skin, and I stretch out on the BarcaLounger and have a nice nap.

Healing Chronic Loneliness?

I bring up these two distinct healthcare experiences as a way to address a peculiar aspect of geezer psychology. A lot of old people go to the doctor not because they’re sick, but because they’re lonely. That’s the conclusion researchers from the University of Georgia School of Public Health reached after analyzing data from a national survey of more than 3,000 Americans over the age of 60.

People who researchers described as experiencing “chronic” loneliness, were much more likely to schedule doctor appointments more frequently than those who enjoyed significant social interaction. “This finding made sense to us,” Jayani Jayawardhana, an assistant professor of health policy and management, told Science Daily. “You build a relationship with your physician over the years, so a visit to the doctor’s office is like seeing a friend.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, reflects plenty of earlier research showing that loneliness is a major issue among the elderly, one that public health professionals have yet to adequately address.

I may not be particularly social, but I don’t count myself among the lonesome geezers who need a regular dose of Dr. Whoever to feel like someone cares. And those biweekly acupuncture sessions? Well, acupuncture is all about health maintenance. And afternoon naps in that BarcaLounger.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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