Loneliness has regularly made it into the headlines over recent months as newly published research caused national papers to proclaim that “Loneliness can shorten your life” and a “Stiff upper lip condemns 190,000 older men to loneliness”.
Evidence that loneliness can physically harm us will probably continue to fuel dramatic headlines as our collective memory on such things is often short. But the research behind these stories should remain important for campaigners, practitioners and health professionals alike as we all seek to better understand the complex relationship between loneliness, health and quality of life in older age.
Some of these findings derive from significant longitudinal data, others from much smaller data samples. Some are more controversial than others, but they all add to the growing evidence base on loneliness and health.
Loneliness should be identified to help detect risk of poor health outcomes
For example, the recent Loneliness in Older Persons: A Predictor of Functional Decline and Death, published in June by the Archives of Internal Medicine, gathered longitudinal data from a cohort of 1604 participants between 2002 and 2008. It found that individuals self-reporting as lonely were more likely to develop difficulties with “upper extremity tasks”, experience a decline in mobility, and difficulty in walking up stairs. Loneliness was also associated with an increased risk of death.
Interestingly, 62.5% of the adults who reported being lonely were married, highlighting that the size of family or relationship networks does not guarantee that we are able to avoid loneliness. This has implications for policy makers and practitioners in the UK, reminding us of the truly subjective nature of loneliness and how difficult it is to identify.
The study also indicates that preventing loneliness could enable people to physically remain at home longer without need for social care services; roughly a quarter of the group reported difficulties with daily activities such as dressing or getting up from a chair on their own.
Carla Perissinotto, who led the research, told a journalist “asking about chronic diseases is not enough” and encouraged health professionals to look at social factors, including loneliness, to help identify older people at risk of poor health outcomes.
Social isolation and loneliness are linked to chronic health conditions
A second study released by the Archives of Internal Medicine in June, Living Alone and Cardiovascular Risk in Outpatients at Risk of or With Atherothrombosis, suggested people with heart disease or a high risk of developing the condition who lived alone were more likely to die over a four-year period than those living with family or others. The link between social isolation and increased risks of heart attacks and strokes, researchers argued, could be due to patients having less support to access healthcare.
This study adds to older research, such as a 2010 study that found loneliness predicted increased blood pressure.
Loneliness is a subjective experience
In July, WRVS argued that men over the age of 75 were lonelier than women of the same age. The charity surveyed 500 people across Great Britain and combined these statistics with recent data from the Office for National Statistics to suggest there are more than 190,000 men living in social isolation.
The survey also revealed a range of reasons why older men feel lonely; 62% reported it was because their spouse had died. This is reinforced by other research, which defines loneliness in two different ways. ‘Social’ loneliness is felt when there is an absence of a wider network of friends and acquaintances. ‘Emotional’ loneliness is experienced when one key relationship – such as a spouse or best friend – is lost. As this survey illustrates, research suggests men are more likely to experience emotional loneliness than social loneliness.
The survey had a small sample but it still shows there is a need for services or activities that could reduce loneliness to be as responsive (as possible) to individual needs.
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