COVID-19 has brought the term “social isolation” into our lives, but according to Dilip Jeste, MD, neuropsychiatrist and director of UCSD’s Center for Healthy Aging, it doesn’t mean we have to be lonely. During his presentation as part of the Online Distinguished Speaker Series presented by the La Jolla Community Center, Jeste described his findings on the interrelationship of aging, loneliness, and the important role of wisdom in our lives.
“We can measure social isolation, but loneliness is subjective,” says Jeste, who has studied and researched the issue for more than 15 years. “We didn’t even have a word for loneliness until the 1800s. It used to be the word ‘oneliness,’ a time for self-reflection and enjoying time alone. The concept of loneliness was introduced as society moved toward industrialization and there was increased mobility, a focus on individualism, and increased levels of stress.”
According to Jeste, loneliness is a silent killer, in-creasing the odds of mortality by 30 percent and claiming the lives of 162,000 Americans annually. For lonely individuals, studies point to increased risks of developing mood disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, and metabolic disease. While it can be an inheritable trait in 50 percent of the individuals, Jeste says, “That leaves 50 percent attributable to behavior and the environment, which we have quite a bit of control over.”
One of the surprising findings of Jeste’s research on loneliness is what he calls “a silver lining.” He discovered that those between the ages of 20 and 39 are not as happy as people 70 to 90 years old. “As we explored the physical, psychological, and psycho-social aspects of aging, we discovered that the development of wisdom was on the opposite end of the development of loneliness. This set us on a path to learn more about how individuals at any age could develop wisdom in their lives,” he says.
Jeste believes that just as we’re searching for a vaccine for the coronavirus, we need a behavior vaccine against loneliness, which “is a pandemic that affects the whole of society, creating multiple risks to health and bringing down lifespans. We need to teach these concepts of wisdom throughout our education system and integrate them into our lives.”
To listen to Jeste’s full presentation or to register for future Distinguished Speaker or Wednesday Connect Series events, visit ljcommunitycenter.org/dss. The next Distinguished Speaker, slated for July 14, is Jacopo Annese, PhD, founder of the Brain Observatory and the Human Brain Library, a neuroimaging database designed to fight brain disease. Barbara Burton Graf
Dr. Jeste’s 5 Key Traits Associated with the Concept of Wisdom:
- Self-reflection; an ability to look inward at one’s own behavior
- Compassion and kindness to oneself and others
- Emotional regulation; the ability to control our emotions and remain calm despite the ups and downs of life situations
- Decisiveness amidst uncertainty; accepting the fact that we don’t know many things, that there is uncertainty, and that we can be decisive when it’s called for
- Spirituality; a belief in something we cannot see, hear, or know