Study links loneliness in older individuals to functional decline, death

Loneliness in individuals over 60 years of age appears associated with increased risk of functional decline and death, according to a report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine.

In older persons, can be a common source of distress and impaired quality life, according to the study background.

Carla M. Perissinotto, M.D., M.H.S., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues examined the relationship between loneliness and risk of functional decline and death in older individuals in a study of 1,604 participants in the Health and Retirement Study.

The participants (average age 71) were asked if they felt left out, isolated or a lack of companionship. Of the participants, 43.2 percent reported feeling lonely, which was defined as reporting one of the loneliness items at least some of the time, according to the study results.

Loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death over the six-year follow-up period (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent), the results indicate. Loneliness also was associated with functional decline, including participants being more likely to experience decline in activities of daily living (24.8 percent vs. 12.5 percent), develop difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5 percent vs. 28.3 percent) and difficulty in stair climbing (40.8 percent vs. 27.9 percent).

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

The authors conclude their study could have important public health implications.

"Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of . However, loneliness may be as an important of a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional 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 ."

In an invited commentary, Emily M. Bucholz, M.P.H., and Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., S.M., of the Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn., write: "Social support – few concepts in epidemiology have proven more elusive to define."

"As we look forward to future studies on social support, the importance of clarifying the mechanisms by which this amorphous concept influences health becomes clear," they continue.

"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," the authors conclude.

More information: Arch Intern Med. Published online June 18, 2012. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993
Arch Intern Med. Published online June 18, 2012. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.2649

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Effects of loneliness mimic aging process

May 01, 2012

The social pain of loneliness produces changes in the body that mimic the aging process and increase the risk of heart disease, reports a recent Cornell study published in Psychology and Aging (27:1). Changes in cardiovascular functi ...

Those were the days: counteracting loneliness with nostalgia

Nov 12, 2008

With the days getting shorter (and colder) and the Holidays quickly approaching, many of us start thinking back to days gone by. This sentimentality and desire for the past is known as nostalgia. All of us are struck with ...

Recommended for you

Medicare hospital fund to last 4 years longer

8 hours ago

(AP)—The government says Medicare's finances have improved. The program's hospital trust fund won't be exhausted until 2030—four years later than last year's estimate.

User comments