A new study from the USA has found that loneliness in older age is associated with a higher number of visits to physicians – what we in the UK would call GPs. This research adds to a growing evidence base linking loneliness to poor health and increased use of health and care services.

What did the research find?

Over 3,500 adults aged 60+ in the United States answered questions from the UCLA Loneliness Scale in 2008 and 2012. This scale asks how often someone feels they lack companionship, how often they feel left out and how often they feel isolated from others. Respondents were then ranked on an ‘index’ of loneliness, where a higher score equalled a higher degree of loneliness. If someone reported feelings of loneliness in both years, they were defined by the research team as “chronically” lonely.

53% of the people interviewed said they had felt lonely in 2008, but this had increased to 57% by 2012. The researchers could see that people who said they were lonely were more likely to have problems with the activities of daily living and were less likely to self-rate their health as ‘good’, ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’.

The study also discovered that if someone reporting feelings of loneliness in one year, but not the other, there was no association with health care use. However, chronic loneliness (reporting loneliness in both 2008 and 2012) was associated with an increased visits to American physicians The researchers found no link between chronic loneliness and hospitalisation.

In a recent interview, one of the researchers said: “This finding made sense to us. You build a relationship with your physician over the years, so a visit to the doctor’s office is like seeing a friend. Hospitalizations, on the other hand, require a referral from a doctor, and you don’t know who you will see.”

What does this mean for practice?

As these research findings come from America, we cannot use this study to claim that loneliness increases GP visits in the United Kingdom.  However, this study can be used to show there is, in some parts of the world, an association between loneliness and increased GP visits. Both health services and voluntary sector organisations can act on this information. Doctors and health care workers could assess older patients’ social needs alongside their physical or mental health – this might be particularly important for patients who visit regularly.

Secondly, GP surgeries could help statutory and voluntary sector service providers to better identify and reach older people experiencing loneliness. This could involve establishing referral partnerships or passing on information about local services and support to older patients. By improving the identification of, and support available to, older people at risk of loneliness health service providers could improve health and quality of life of their patients and save money by decreasing unnecessary surgery visits.

The author explains this further: “Loneliness is something that is easily preventable and with little cost compared to other chronic illnesses. With an intervention as simple as a phone call, home visit or community program, you can avoid unnecessary health care utilization and additional expenditures that ultimately cost all of us as a society.”