While glancing at Beverly’s chart, I noticed that her birthday had been the day before.

“You’re 80!” I exclaimed, excited about her milestone. “How did you celebrate? Did you have a party?” Beverly shook her head “no.” I continued, “Did your family call?” Bev shook her head again.

Bev replied with a sigh, “It was like any other day. Nothing happened. I’m glad I had a doctor’s appointment today. At least it got me out of the house.”

Bev lamented, “This is WORSE than my cancer! I’m not important to my family. It’s like what Mother Teresa said, ‘One of the greatest diseases is to be nobody to anybody.'” Bev was lonely.

Loneliness has been recognized recently as a growing problem in the elderly, especially as the number of retirees increases. Over 40 percent of people over 60 admit to being lonely, with percentages increasing successively in each decade of life. Loneliness is a health problem. In recent studies, loneliness has been found to lead to physical illness and cognitive decline. As a predictor of early death, loneliness eclipses obesity as a major cause of early death, even adjusting for age, economic status and depression. Another study of 1,600 individuals found loneliness also produced a decrease in performing daily activities.

On the biochemical level, loneliness produces an increase in the body’s stress response, causing elevated blood pressure, decreased blood flow to internal organs, and impaired immune response. In mice, 24 hours of isolation produced changes in the areas of the brain linked to depression. These dopamine receptors become more active once the experimental mice are reunited with other mice.

How could Beverly be helped? Knowing Bev’s interest in Mother Teresa, I sought an example of another woman of faith. The Bible gives us many examples of loneliness and how to combat it. One particular example is Anna, who met Jesus and his family in the temple in Jerusalem only weeks after Jesus was born. This was the time when Jesus was presented to the Lord as prescribed in the Law, considered to be the first five books of the Bible. Anna had several characteristics similar to Beverly. Like Beverly, Anna was elderly and a widow: “Anna was very old; she lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and then was a widow until she was 84″(Luke 2:36). Yet there are differences in the way Anna and Bev lived. Anna is described as a prophetess who, as described in the Bible, studied the Word of God to interpret God’s will, and taught it to others. Not only was Anna mentally active with study, she was constantly out of her home: “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). In addition, Anna was not afraid to be engaged with other people and speak with them: “Coming up to them (Mary and Joseph) at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Fortunately, Beverly was amenable to talking about her loneliness and considering solutions for it. Living arrangements may be having a significant impact. By age 70, one-third of people live alone. By 80, it is one-half. We discussed a number of steps she could take. Bev was already involved with a church and there were a number of activities at church that Bev could be engaged in. There was a book group in her neighborhood. There were interesting courses available at senior college at the University of Southern Maine. Bev also needed to reconnect with her family, and she wanted to make the effort. Though her daughters lived in another state and Beverly did not drive long distances, she could explore visiting them in Boston by bus or train.

I was pleased Beverly was willing to consider strategies to combat her loneliness. She had much she could change. In her age group, it is encouraging that 70 percent of women seek help for loneliness. But a big challenge remains. Studies reveal that loneliness is even more of a problem in elderly men, and yet only 30 percent of men seek help.

Dr. Delvyn C. Case Jr. is a hematologist/oncologist, playwright and director, columnist and consultant to the department of spiritual care at Maine Medical Center in Portland.