The High Price of Loneliness
Loneliness stings at any age. But in older people, it can have serious health consequences, raising the risks of an earlier-than-expected death and the loss of physical functioning, according to a recent study.
The report, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, is the largest yet to tease out the impact of loneliness on people in their later years. Geriatricians at the University of Cal, San Francisco, asked 1,604 adults age 60 and older how often they felt isolated or left out, or lacked companionship. The researchers were attempting to quantify the feeling of loneliness — a sense of not having meaningful contact with others, accompanied by painful distress.
Answers were recorded in 2002 and every two years after through 2008. The number of older adults who reported feeling lonely — just over 43 percent — didn’t change significantly over that period, according to Dr. Carla Perissinotto, an assistant clinical professor at U.C.S.F. and the study’s lead author.
About 13 percent of older adults said they were often lonely, while 30 percent said loneliness was sometimes an issue. What did change over the six-year period was the health status of elderly men and women who felt isolated and unhappy.
By 2008, 24.8 percent of seniors in this group reported declines in their ability to perform the so-called activities of daily living — to bathe, dress, eat, toilet and get up from a chair or a bed on their own. Among those free of loneliness, only 12.5 percent reported such declines.
Lonely older adults also were 45 percent more likely to die than seniors who felt meaningfully connected with others, even after results were adjusted for factors like depression, socioeconomic status and existing health conditions.
The emphasis on meaningful connections goes to the heart of what loneliness is and is not. It is not the same thing as being alone: 62.5 percent of older adults who reported being lonely in this new study were married. Nor is it simply a paucity of social contacts.
As has been observed many times, people can feel lonely even when surrounded by others if their interactions lack emotional depth and resonance. Loneliness is about the way people experience relationships subjectively, not the number of relationships they have, expert say.
That isn’t to say that the number of relationships, or what’s known in the scientific literature as “social supports,” isn’t important. In fact, a large body of research has demonstrated that social supports are critical to older adults’ health and well-being, as well as to their longevity.
Instead, both social supports and loneliness are important, each separately, each in its own way, even as these components of older people’s lives interact, Dr. Perissinotto said.
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