Elderly Face Greater Risk of Death When Lonely, Study Finds

We all know that spending time among friends and family is important not only for the sake of being socially active, but also to have that feeling of being relationally fulfilled. A new study has established a new reason to remain connected as it found loneliness among the elderly may put them at a greater risk for death and functional decline – making relationships and personal interaction more important than ever.

A new six-year study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine has found that people over the age of 60 who struggled with loneliness had a 45 percent higher risk of death than those who felt well-surrounded and connected. In fact, researchers found that the risk of death for people who were lonely was 23 percent, as compared to 14 percent for those who weren’t.

So what does this mean? People, social lives, healthy surroundings are important. And that as we age, it becomes increasingly necessary to stay connected as to avoid loneliness and the health risks that come along with it.

To conduct the study, researchers analyzed the relationship between loneliness, functional decline, and death in more than 1,600 participants in the U.S., over the age of 60. An initial assessment was taken in 2002, with follow-up assessments taking place every two years thereafter until 2008. 

According to the study’s abstract, participants were asked if they often felt left out, isolated or lacked companionship. If a participant answered yes or even ‘some of the time’ to any of the three questions, they were considered lonely. And if they responded ‘hardly,’ they weren’t placed among the lonely group.

In addition to being at a higher risk of death, the lonelier folks in the study were also more likely to have limited mobility as well as difficulty performing everyday tasks like grooming and housekeeping.

Lead researcher Carla M. Perissinotto told NPR in a recent interview that it’s all about being connected and engaged. “Someone can have multiple social contacts but still somehow feel that they’re not connecting,” she said. This was found to be true as several of the subjects who were considered lonely were actually married or living with someone else at the time of the study.

Researchers concluded that while friendship and connectivity are important at all points in life, they become especially crucial at the end of a person’s life as health declines. “The association between loneliness and death remained significant even after adjusting for demographics, depression and other health and function measures.”

The study also pointed out that considering the increasing number of Americans aging and the high costs associated with disability – approximately $26 billion annually for those who can’t live independently – it’s vital to to identify and treat these factors that lead the elderly population toward functional decline and death.

Along with keeping healthy, meaningful relationships as a means of staying connected, we also know it’s important to stay active both mentally and physically as we age to achieve optimum, lifelong health. And now we know just how important those social connections can be for our heatlh as well.

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