Study: Socially Isolated Seniors at Greater Risk of Functional Decline & Death

Receiving care at home can be convenient and preferable for many older adults, but one possible side effect—loneliness—has health implications that bear careful consideration and makes a case for social supports.

Seniors aged 60 and older who are lonely have been linked with an increased risk of functional decline and even death, says a report published by Archives of Internal Medicine. 

Loneliness can be a common source of distress and impaired quality of life in older people, the study says. Researchers examined the relationship between loneliness and risk of functional decline and death among 1,604 seniors participating in the Health and Retirement study.

Those who reported loneliness at least some of the time (whether by feeling left out, isolated, or lacking in companionship), at 43.2%, were associated with an increased risk of death in the six-year follow-up window, at 22.8% versus 14.2% of those who didn’t report feelings of loneliness. 

Besides an increased risk of death, lonely participants were associated more with functional decline, including being more likely to experience declines in activities of daily living (24.8% vs. 12.5%), developing difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5% vs. 28.3%), and difficulty in climbing stairs (40.8% vs. 27.9%). 

“Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons. We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline,” the authors comment.

Assessing an older individual’s loneliness levels could have important public health implications, the researchers conclude. 

“Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice. However, loneliness may be as an important of a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors,” the researchers note. “Our results suggest that questioning older persons about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying elderly persons at risk of disability and poor health outcomes.”

The concept of social support has been elusive to define, write two doctors from Yale University’s School of Medicine, but recent research studying the effects of loneliness and social isolation among seniors could help. 

“Loneliness is a negative feeling that would be worth addressing even if the condition had no health implications. Nevertheless, with regard to health implications, scientists examining social support should build on studies such as those published in this issue and be challenged to investigate mechanisms as well as practical interventions that can be used to address the social factors that undermine health,” say Emily M. Bucholz, M.P.H., and Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., S.M.

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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