Imagine what it must be like to be old and alone. Not a pretty picture, is it? Now imagine that your loneliness causes your body to decay. The picture looks worse, doesn’t it? Now imagine that same loneliness makes you more likely to die early. Isn’t that a miserable thought?

I hate to tell you, but research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows just that: loneliness causes mental distress, physical deterioration and premature death.

Scientists followed 1,600 seniors for nearly five years, asking them if they felt “left out of life.” Were they isolated? Were they lonely? Did they want companionship that just wasn’t there?

More than four out of 10 seniors said they were lonely – not every day, but often for days on end. Those seniors were twice as likely to have problems with daily activities that you and I take for granted: shopping, doing laundry, taking dishes out of the kitchen cabinet, climbing stairs, taking out the garbage. The stuff of life we need to carry on. The clincher to this story is that a lonely senior is more likely to die younger. To wit – loneliness causes the body to run out of steam.

This study dovetails with a study out of the Journal of the American Medical Association that I read in 2009. That research showed people who rarely engaged in social activities had less strength – you could actually measure the muscle mass they lost in their arms and legs. They also had less energy and felt more fatigued. They didn’t work as well, play as much or sleep as soundly at night. They were pooped.

The kind of social activity we’re talking about here are things such as going to restaurants, sports events, day trips, vacations, attending church and having dinner with friends and relatives.

Why is this happening? As we all know, when we’re young, it’s easy to make friendships; as we age, it’s harder. And there is a difference for men and women. Women are better at replenishing their social relationships with family stuff. Guys often are not as good at making new buds. It’s as simple as that.

What I find fascinating here is that we doctors have been oblivious to this problem. We talk to people day in and day out about cutting out sugary soda, quitting smoking, adding more exercise to their day. But we never ask if they’re lonely. Have you ever had a doctor ask you that question? I doubt it. It’s clear from this research that we should be.

My spin: We can solve this problem. Just like there are Big Brothers and Big Sisters for children who might need a helping hand, there should be “Little Brothers and Little Sisters” for lonely seniors.

Do you know a neighbor, a relative, someone at your church, synagogue, temple or mosque who is lonely? I bet you do. Is your life just too busy-busy-busy to ask them to a Sunday dinner or to go out to a movie? Perhaps a walk in the park might cheer them up.

Making time takes effort. But the smile you get in return just might be worth it.

Stay well.

Dr. Zorba Paster is a family physician, university professor, author and broadcast journalist. He also hosts a popular radio call-in program at 3 p.m. Saturdays on WNED.