Lonely Hearts Stop Beating Sooner

Loneliness among seniors associated with death and physical weakening

(RxWiki News) Having a support network of friends and family can mean more than good conversation and company. Avoiding loneliness among seniors can mean living longer.

A recent study has found that people over age 60 who feel loneliness even some of the time are more likely to decline in physical abilities sooner and head to the grave sooner.

"Get involved with the community if you are feeling lonely."

Lead author Carla Perissinotto, MD, MDS, of the University of California, San Francisco, and her team looked at links between loneliness and functional decline and death among seniors involved in the Health and Retirement Study.

The study included 1,604 people with an average age of 71 who were asked about feeling left out, lacking companionship or feeling isolated. A total of 43 percent reported feeling lonely at least some of the time.

When the researchers tracked the participants over the next six years, they found that loneliness was associated with a greater risk of death and a greater risk of having trouble with certain physical tasks.

Among those reporting loneliness, 23 percent died during follow-up compared to 14 percent of those who did not report loneliness. Those feeling lonely were also about twice as likely (25 percent compared to 13 percent) to see their daily living activities deteriorate.

While 28 percent of those not reporting loneliness developed difficulties related to using their upper extremities over the six year follow-up, 42 percent of the lonely people experienced these problems.

Further, 41 percent of those feeling lonely found it more difficult at follow-up to climb stairs compared to 28 percent of the others in the group.

LuAnn Pierce, a licensed clinical social worker in Colorado, points out that loneliness often grows from the absence of loved ones that older individuals have spent years caring for.

"Older adults who live longer than their spouses or partners, and often many of their friends, are certainly at risk for changes in lifestyle that greatly impact health," Pierce said. "It is not uncommon to hear caregivers and surviving loved ones talk about feeling lost with no sense of purpose, as so much of their time and attention has been focused on caring for or being with their loved ones."

Pierce said such individuals can combat that loneliness by finding fulfilling ways to use their time and energy.

"Rituals such as sitting down for meals, dressing everyday, continuing to attend functions in the community and finding ways to engage in life are very important," she said. "Activities that nurture and support, whether it be gardening or volunteering to rock babies in the hospital or church nursery, are life affirming activities. Helping others is a good cure for loneliness."

In addition, if you are dropping off a meal for someone living alone or coping with the grief of a lost partner, consider staying a little bit to share a meal, Pierce suggest, since people are less likely to skip meals if they have company.

The authors of this study noted that primary caregivers should be looking for signs of loneliness or asking older patients about it.

"Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice," the researchers wrote. "However, loneliness may be as an important of a 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," they wrote.

The study appeared online June 18 in the JAMA journal Archives of Internal Medicine. The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging.

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Review Date: 
June 20, 2012