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Wisdom and compassion can protect you from loneliness

A new study from UC San Diego is shedding some positive light on the loneliness epidemic, finding that wisdom can ward off the negative health impacts of social isolation. The researchers found that adults from San Diego all the way to Cilento, Italy are protected from loneliness through the compassion, wisdom, and good judgment that comes along with life experience.

Previous studies have consistently found that social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for major health issues and unhealthy aging. In the last few decades, experts have become increasingly concerned about the impact of loneliness on middle-aged and older adults, in particular.

Study lead author Dr. Dilip V. Jeste is a professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences and the senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“An important finding from our study was a significant inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom. People with higher scores on a measure of wisdom were less lonely and vice versa,” said Dr. Jeste.

“Loneliness was consistently associated with poor general health, worse quality of sleep and less happiness, whereas the reverse was generally true for wisdom.”

Using the UCLA Loneliness Scale and San Diego Wisdom Scale, the researchers examined four groups of adults aged 50 to 65 and those older than age 90 in both California and Italy. Among all four groups, the experts found a strong inverse correlation between loneliness and wisdom.

Dr. Salvatore Di Somma, the study’s lead Italian investigator, is a professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Rome La Sapienza.

“We translated the rating scales for loneliness and wisdom from English to Italian. It is remarkable that the findings related to these two traits were largely similar in two markedly different cultures – a rural region of southern Italy and an urban/suburban county in the United States, both with different native languages and unique historical, educational and socioeconomic backgrounds,” said Dr. Di Somma.

The Cilento region is a relatively remote area of southwestern Italy that has a large population of individuals over the age of 90. The current research expands upon the Cilento Initiative on Aging Outcomes (CIAO) study, which was launched in 2016.

“Both loneliness and wisdom are personality traits. Most personality traits are partially inherited and partially determined by environment,” said Dr. Jeste.

Wisdom has several important components, including empathy, compassion, self-reflection, and emotional regulation. The researchers found that empathy and compassion have the strongest inverse correlation with loneliness. Overall, people who are more compassionate tend to be less lonely, according to the study.

“If we can increase someone’s compassion, wisdom is likely to go up and loneliness is likely to go down,” said Dr. David Brenner. “At UC San Diego, we have considerable interest in enhancing empathy and compassion to reduce levels of stress and improve happiness and well-being.”

According to Dr. Jeste, studies that help to determine how to combat loneliness as people age will be critical for effective interventions and the future of health care.

“Routine assessment of loneliness with evidence-based, compassion-focused interventions for prevention and management of loneliness should become an integral part of clinical practice,” said Dr. Jeste. “So how do you increase compassion? Utilizing approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy or writing in a gratitude diary can help someone become more compassionate.”

The study is published in the journal Aging and Mental Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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