Isolation, loneliness may raise death risk for elderly

March 25, 2013 by Steven Reinberg, Healthday Reporter
Isolation, loneliness may raise death risk for elderly
Study found lack of social contact a bigger predictor of early death than just feeling alone.

(HealthDay)—Elderly people who are socially isolated and lonely may be at greater risk of early death, British researchers report.

Lack of social contact might be an even bigger risk factor than , they added. Why, however, isolation is such a powerful predictor of death isn't clear.

"Social contact is a fundamental aspect of human existence. The scientific evidence is that being socially isolated is probably bad for your health, and may lead to the development of serious illness and a reduced ," said lead researcher Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of and Health Care at University College London.

There is also research suggesting that loneliness has similar associations with , he said.

"In many ways, social isolation and loneliness are two sides of the same coin. Social isolation indicates a lack of contact with friends, relatives and organizations, while loneliness is a subjective experience of lack of companionship and social contact," Steptoe said.

The investigators found that social isolation was a more consistent predictor of not surviving than was loneliness, and was related to greater risk of dying even after age and background health were taken into account, he said.

One expert said the findings were a little unexpected.

"You would think that loneliness would compound the risk for , as opposed to just isolation—it's a bit of a surprise," said Dr. Bryan Bruno, acting chair of at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved with the study.

However, Steptoe explained, "Knowing about how lonely participants felt did not add to our ability to predict future mortality. This is not to say that loneliness is unimportant, or that we should not strive to reduce loneliness in and women," he said.

"But, we need to keep an eye on the of older people, since maintaining social contacts among seniors and reducing isolation may be particularly important for their future survival," Steptoe added.

Bruno agreed that isolation is a significant factor in both reduced quality of life and mortality. "It is a difficult, challenging problem," he said.

"For my elderly patients, I often do a lot of education about the risk associated with being isolated and encourage them to spend as much time with other people as possible, whether it be family, friends or joining groups, community organizations or doing volunteer work," Bruno noted.

The report was published March 25 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

To look at the risks of loneliness and social isolation on dying, Steptoe's team collected data on 6,500 men and women aged 52 and older who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging in 2004.

People who had limited contact with family or friends or community were classified as socially isolated. The researchers used a questionnaire to assess loneliness, which was described in background information in the study as a person's "dissatisfaction with the frequency and closeness of their social contacts, or the discrepancy between the relationships they have and the relationships they would like to have."

During nearly eight years of follow-up, 918 people died and social isolation and loneliness both predicted an early death.

, however, increased the risk of dying regardless of one's health and other factors, while loneliness increased the risk of dying only among those with underlying mental or physical problems, the researchers found.

Explore further: How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

More information: "Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women," by Andrew Steptoe, Aparna Shankar, Panayotes Demakakos, and Jane Wardle, PNAS, 2013.

For more on social isolation, visit AARP.

Related Stories

How lonely you are may impact how well you sleep, research shows

November 1, 2011
Loneliness is not only heartbreaking, it breaks up a normal night's sleep, a new study shows. Researchers say compromised sleep may be one pathway by which feelings of loneliness adversely affect our health.

Study links loneliness in older individuals to functional decline, death

June 18, 2012
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.

Researchers discover neurological link to loneliness

October 25, 2012
Researchers from UCL have found that lonely people have less grey matter in a part of the brain associated with decoding eye gaze and other social cues.

Effects of loneliness mimic aging process

May 1, 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 ...

Recommended for you

Blowing smoke? E-cigarettes might help smokers quit

July 26, 2017
People who used e-cigarettes were more likely to kick the habit than those who didn't, a new study found.

Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

July 25, 2017
Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

Safety of medical devices not often evaluated by sex, age, or race

July 25, 2017
Researchers at Yale and the University of California-San Francisco have found that few medical devices are analyzed to consider the influence of their users' sex, age, or race on safety and effectiveness.

Why you should consider more than looks when choosing a fitness tracker

July 25, 2017
A UNSW study of five popular physical activity monitors, including Fitbit and Jawbone models, has found their accuracy differs with the speed of activity, and where they are worn.

Dog walking could be key to ensuring activity in later life

July 24, 2017
A new study has shown that regularly walking a dog boosts levels of physical activity in older people, especially during the winter.

Study finds 275,000 calls to poison control centers for dietary supplement exposures from 2000 through 2012

July 24, 2017
U.S. Poison Control Centers receive a call every 24 minutes, on average, regarding dietary supplement exposures, according to a new study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy and the Central Ohio Poison Center, ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Sinister1811
1 / 5 (3) Mar 25, 2013
I would be interested in similar studies with people of other age groups or social status who are also lonely and/or isolated. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't something that just affects the aging population.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.