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Loneliness Bodes Poorly For A Healthy Old Age

A feeling of loneliness carries health risks.
Gary Radler Photography
A feeling of loneliness carries health risks.

They're time-consuming, demanding and require birthday cards, but they may help keep you alive. Friends and family, that is.

Loneliness in older people can predict declines in health and an increased risk of death, according to findings just published online by the Archives of Internal Medicine. People over 60 who felt lonely had a 45 percent higher risk of death than those who weren't lonely, the six-year-long study found. In absolute terms, the risk of death was about 23 percent for the lonely people and 14 percent for those who weren't.

The lonely people in the study were also more prone to have limited mobility and face greater difficulty performing basic tasks like grooming and housekeeping. On that score, about a quarter of lonely people were likely to develop trouble compared to about 13 percent who weren't lonely.

While the connection between well-being and friendships isn't new, the latest findings look specifically at people who self-identified as lonely, regardless of the how extensive their social network was.

"It's about connectivity," lead researcher Carla M. Perissinotto tells Shots. "Someone can have multiple social contacts but still somehow felt that they're not connecting." Many people who said they were lonely, for example, were married or lived with someone else.

Perissinotto, a geriatrician, cited one of her patients, a 93-year-old woman who had difficulty eating. The woman kept losing weight because she lived alone and viewed eating as a social activity. To treat her, Perissinotto looked for ways to help the woman be with peers during mealtimes.

The data, which were collected every two years from 2002 through 2008 as part of the nationally administered Health and Retirement Study, looked at 1,604 cases to assess risk factors. The study only included people living in the community — not those in care facilities or retirement homes.

By asking about patient's feelings, Perissinotto says she hopes physicians can broaden their understanding of potential health risks and think creatively about addressing them. She says the study can't conclusively prove cause and effect, but sheds light on a significant health issue.

"We could be missing a big part of the puzzle if we choose to focus on traditional medical risk factors," Perissinotto says. "By asking these questions, I may be finding one more way of intervening with these patients."

An accompanying editorial notes that some of the predictive factors found in this study and some others published at the same time should get more attention. "Loneliness is a negative feeling that would be worth addressing even if the condition had no health implications," the authors of the editorial note.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Camille Aguirre