Loneliness is one of the top threats to senior men’s health. Living in isolation can take a physical, mental, and emotional toll in older adults. Relentless solitude can accelerate the rate of cognitive decline, and increase the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent. It’s as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking. For Boomer men told to “man up” their entire lives and not ask for help, loneliness can be a silent killer.

Yes, there’s a difference between living alone and being lonely: a third of Americans older than 65 live alone, but many remain connected to other people. Community activities, social events, family occasions and traveling stave off that sense of being cut off from the world. But others are unprepared for the vacuum they face when they retire. Here are 5 proven ways to overcome loneliness before it sets in — and takes a toll on physical, emotional and mental health:

Don’t let it slide

Especially for men living alone, it’s important to recognize the signs of withdrawal from social contact. Ask yourself: Do you feel lonelier in a crowd than you used to? Do you feel like you’re by yourself even when you’re with someone else? Have you stopped making plans with other people, telling yourself you’d just prefer to read, for instance? Downtime is terrific, but not too much. For some men, it’s going to be hard to admit that craving solitude might be part resignation or avoidance. Needing company may seem like an admission of weakness. It’s not. Persistent isolation is a slippery slope, so take note, and reach out.

Tend to friendships

After spending most of your life working, it’s likely most of your friends are work-related. There is life after work — and it doesn’t have to be completely unrelated to that profession you mastered. Maintain those connections with those you can. It’s just as important to be able to chat and share ideas with like-minded people as ever — for your mental as well as emotional health. But take advantage of new possibilities: seek out new friendships based on new parts of your life, and continue expanding your social horizons.

Visit a house of worship

Whether you practice a religion or not, faith-based institutions are beacons for social support and activities as well as solace. Join one, and you’ll be welcomed into a community that is based on building community. It likely won’t be long before you’re asked to volunteer, either. Lending your time, skills and energy can have myriad benefits for you — it can help you form a new routine, keep you moving, make you feel like you’re an asset, which you are. Paid or not, work is a key aspect to our wellbeing.

Help the animals

Not everyone is an animal lover or wants a pet, or can have one where they live. But caring for something other than oneself is an effective way to stave off loneliness and break up the day — and animals offer non-judgmental affection and companionship. Visit the local animal shelter or the farm sanctuary. It’s also another terrific opportunity to volunteer. You’ll be among good-hearted people and grateful creatures, be out in the world, and know you’re making a difference.

“Encore education” is trending: many seniors are returning to school to pursue the field they had to leave behind, or broaden their existing knowledge base. Most colleges and universities will allow seniors to audit classes at no cost or nominal fees, including tuition waivers for those who want to earn college credit. Just being in the atmosphere, interacting with younger people, and learning, is invigorating.

Get in line — and dance

Movement is always beneficial; movement when you have to also think about it is better still. But even better than that is moving, thinking about it, and being in a group of people all having fun as they do it. That’s why line dancing is considered a terrific activity for seniors. It’s easy and pleasurable exercise. It’s incredibly fun and there’s often a relaxed vibe. It’s good for your heart and requires thinking and coordination — which keeps your mind going. Studies show it can help protect against memory loss and dementia.

Consider a move

According to the AARP, 90 percent of seniors would rather stay home. But “aging in place” is not always the ideal. If home is far away from family, in a remote area, and requires extensive driving or traveling for basic necessities, it’s not going to support a senior for long. If a home can’t be easily adapted to aging’s physical changes, consider an alternative. The concept of senior housing has changed radically from the old model of an “end of the road” nursing home to vibrant, active, varied communities — and they’re not just for higher incomes any more. If you do want to stay home, make sure you can thrive there, with transportation, access to stores, the library, restaurants, activities. Make your home safer with grab bars, raised electrical outlets, carpeting over hard and slick floors. Establish a support network, whether family, friends, outside assistance, or all of the above — so if you need anything, you don’t have to wait.

No man, regardless of age, is an island. There’s no reason to be stoic about getting lonely. Keeping it to yourself only serves to further that sense of isolation. Getting out into the world is simpler than you might think. And given the experiences you’ve had and the skills you’ve likely developed, the world needs you at least as much as you need it.

Thelma Reese, Ed. D., is a passionate expert on retirement. A retired professor of English and of Education, she created the Advisory Council for Hooked on Phonics, and was its spokesperson in the 1990s. She also directed the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy for the City of Philadelphia. She and Barbara M. Fleisher created the blog www.ElderChicks.com in 2012, and are the co-authors of The New Senior Woman: Reinventing the Years Beyond Mid-Life (Rowman & Littlefield). Her new book, co-authored with Fleisher, is The New Senior Man: Exploring New Horizons, New Opportunities.

Originally published at www.care2.com