Loneliness increases an older person's chances of premature death, and the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.
Feeling isolated can disrupt sleep, raise blood pressure, increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, interfere with immunity, increase depression and anxiety and lower feelings of wellbeing and quality of life.
It is not the solitude or physical isolation itself, but rather the sense of isolation that is problematic. People may live alone but not feel lonely, or live with others and feel lonely.
Living alone does not necessarily mean loneliness if one remains socially engaged and enjoys the company of people around him or her.
However, some aspects of ageing such as blindness and loss of hearing place the elderly at a special risk for becoming isolated and lonely.
Loneliness is caused by low level of social fulfilment (not enough activity to keep one busy, and not feeling needed), poor health, changed marital status, reduced income, anxiety and infrequent contact with others.
To measure loneliness, answers to these two questions can help: Do you have someone to talk to when you need it? Do you feel alone when you want to be with someone?
Joshat Koech did not know all this when he started Friends of the Elderly (FOTE), a 200-member group of youth in Kericho County.
He was prompted to action when he saw and empathised with the state of Mzee Kimalel, an elderly man in Kipsolu, Belgut Sub-county.
He was moved by the thought of how difficult it must be for senior citizens with little strength to fend for themselves. So he organised a visit to Mzee Kimalel’s homestead with a friend. They carried a blanket and a bag of groceries.
"Our number grew from two to more than 50 in a few weeks and we registered as a community based organisation," said Mr Koskei.
The group visits elderly members of society in villages across 30 wards every Sunday afternoon.
Their aim is to ensure that the elderly feel appreciated, happier and consequently healthier. Since inception in January 2016, the group has visited 2,000 senior citizens.
Healthy Nation accompanied them to visit the 1,184th senior citizen, an ailing retired teacher in Kelunet, Belgut Sub-county. Nearly 20 members turned up for the visit, with blankets for the seven elders they were seeing that day.
They cut cake and staged a ceremonial handing over of blankets to the elders. FOTE members sang vernacular ceremonial songs as they wrapped a blanket around the shoulders of each elder in turns. They got to learn about their ancient culture and practices, and the health habits of their people and more.
This fits in well with recommendations from researchers on combatting loneliness, which is becoming a major public health threat. Researchers recommend staying in touch and sharing good times, including family traditions, with people who care.
"Doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening and people should prepare for retirement, not just financially, but also socially, as many social ties related to the workplace are cut off," said researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad in a study published in July last year, at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
She also recommended resources to protect individuals and the society from the the public health threat of loneliness.