Loneliness in older adults: five things you need to know about the impact on health and how it can be alleviated

An image to illustrate the concept of loneliness in older adults

A new paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal highlights five important things to know about loneliness in older adults.

Loneliness, which is an emotional state, rather than a mental disorder, is common in older adults. It has been associated with a decline in health and increased health care usage. One of the ways to alleviate loneliness in this age group is with the use of community supports and social networks to reduce the perceived isolation experienced.

Defining loneliness

According to the NHS, a previous study has shown that in an analysis of over 3.4 million people, people who feel socially isolated or live alone are at about a 30% higher risk of early death.

In the study social isolation and loneliness were defined in the following ways:

  • Social isolation (objective) – pervasive lack of social contact or communication, participation in social activities, or having a confidant (example measure: Social Isolation Scale or Social Network Index).
  • Loneliness (subjective) – feelings of isolation, disconnectedness and not belonging (example measure: University of California, Los Angeles Loneliness Scale).

The outcomes of loneliness, and how it can be alleviated

According to the new paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, loneliness is:

  1. An emotional state of perceived isolation;
  2. Common in older adults and linked to declines in health;
  3. As harmful as other risk factors for death, such as obesity and smoking;
  4. A significant predictor of health care usage; and
  5. Possibly alleviated by “social prescribing” to connect lonely adults with community supports and social networks.

A serious public health concern

Dr. Nathan Stall, a research fellow at the University of Toronto and Women’s College Research Institute and a geriatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, commented: “Our health care system and society are increasingly recognizing loneliness as a serious public health problem, but clinicians are often unprepared to properly assess and manage lonely patients.”

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