Living to a ripe old age may depend on a person’s relationship to family, friends and community, according to research that finds lonely older adults are more likely to die sooner than their more socially active peers. Lonely people who are 60 and older tend to have a 45 percent higher risk of dying over the next six years, according to research in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Another study showed that people who live alone and had heart disease were 25 percent more likely to die from the illness.
Approximately one in seven Americans live by themselves. The first study to examine the link between social isolation and death points to the importance of addressing psychosocial needs along with medical ones in improving the health of older adults, according to Carla Perissinotto, a study author. “We cannot continue to ignore the other things that are happening in people’s lives,” said Perissinotto, an assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of California San Francisco. “If we turn a blind eye to what our patients are experiencing at home, we may be missing a place to make a difference in someone’s health.”
The lonely people studied were more likely to have limited mobility and greater difficulty performing basic tasks like grooming and cleaning. Approximately 25 percent of lonely people were likely to develop trouble compared to 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 how extensive their social network. “It’s about connectivity,” Carla M. Perissinotto said. “Someone can have multiple social contacts but still somehow feel that they’re not connecting.”
One study followed nearly 45,000 people aged 45 and older who suffered from heart disease or had a high risk of developing it. Those who lived alone were more likely to die from heart attacks, strokes, or other heart complications over a four-year period than people living with family or friends, or in some other communal arrangement. The risk was highest in middle-aged people, just 14 percent of whom lived alone. Solo living increased the risk of heart problems and early death by 24 percent among people ages 45 to 65, and by only 12 percent among people ages 66 to 80. And there was no association at all in people age 80 and older, a group in which living alone is widespread.
Additional research is needed to confirm the findings, but it may not be a bad idea for physicians to ask heart patients about their living situation, said senior author Dr. Deepak L. Bhatt, M.D., a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. Living solo “could be a little red flag that a patient may be at a higher risk of bad outcomes,” Bhatt said. But living alone could impact health in more immediate ways. For example, people who live along may skip their medications or ignore the warning signs of heart trouble, according to Bhatt.
Bhatt notes that patients who live alone should never ignore changes that might be a sign of health problems. “Many times people just adapt to their circumstances. Perhaps just lower your threshold a little bit and realize it’s better to call (the doctor) than not to call.” That might not be the entire story. “Other mechanisms by which living alone could increase cardiac risk have to do with possible social isolation and loneliness, and these are more challenging to fix,” he said.
According to Emily M. Bucholz, M.P.H., a medical student and doctoral candidate at Yale University, “Living alone, in and of itself, could stand for many different things. Does it mean you lack companionship? Or is it that there is no one there to help you out with medications? Does it have to do with mobility or nutrition?”
Writing in Time, Alice Park notes that “Loneliness can be detrimental in many ways, some of which are biological and some of which are more behavioral. Feeling isolated can trigger changes in brain chemicals and hormones that can increase inflammation in the body, for example, which can exacerbate conditions like heart disease and arthritis. Loneliness may also lead to other problems — poor sleep, depression, a disinterest in one’s own healthcare — which can in turn contribute to disability and early death. Which is why the researchers were particularly concerned over another finding — many of the elderly who said they felt lonely were not actually living alone.
Rather, they were married or living with family members. That suggests that the size of a person’s social network isn’t the only measure of loneliness, and that studies that look only at the number of people’s contacts may miss an entirely separate factor that can have a significant impact on health, said Perissinotto. ‘I think that from a public health and policy level, we are doing a disservice by not asking (people) about their subjective feelings of loneliness. We focus on their diabetes control and treating their hypertension, but are we missing something that may be more distressing to patients and have more of an impact on their health?’”
“Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons,” according to the study’s authors. “We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline. Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice. However, loneliness may be an important predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors. Our results suggest that questioning older persons about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying elderly persons at risk of disability and poor health outcomes.”