Loneliness amongst older folks: A analysis roundup and 5 reporting tips

Loneliness is a distressed feeling arising from the notion that one’s social wants aren’t being met. For many years, it was thought-about strictly an emotional and psychological well being concern, studied primarily by psychologists, philosophers, and poets.

Today, nonetheless, well being researchers and clinicians throughout specialties acknowledge it as a social determinant of health, an element, like financial stability or entry to high-quality training, that drastically influences total well being outcomes. In latest years, loneliness has additionally been described as an epidemic and elevated to a public well being disaster, one intensified by social distancing tips in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in contrast to most different public well being crises, loneliness isn’t all dangerous. About 20% of the inhabitants is experiencing a standard, even useful stage of loneliness at any given time, says Liz Necka, a program director within the Division of Behavioral and Social Research on the National Institute on Aging. “That should be expected, because loneliness can be motivating to promote social connection,” Necka says. “The issue is when loneliness becomes chronic.”

Neuroscience and research of isolated animals recommend that when left untended loneliness triggers an immune response within the physique, sparking cycles of inflammation that may result in a wide range of diseases, starting from despair and anxiousness to hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart illness. The resultant state of hypervigilance is related to shifts in character and decision-making and places folks at greater danger for cognitive impairment and dementia. Oft-cited research locations the elevated danger of untimely dying amongst lonely folks at 26%, a fee on par with smoking.

Despite these troubling correlations, nonetheless, new proof means that even continual loneliness may bestow some advantages. Recent neurological research has discovered that mind areas coping with reminiscing, imagining, and self-reflection are bulkier and extra strongly wired in lonely folks.

Loneliness is sophisticated and onerous to measure, and far stays unknown about how and when it predicts poor well being or early dying. But these and different questions have motivated an explosion of latest analysis over the previous few years, notably since social distancing in the course of the pandemic gave rise to new fears about loneliness ranges worldwide.

All the lonely folks

Research means that 15-30% of the general population is chronically lonely. In the U.S., earlier than the pandemic, about 19% of adults over age 55 had been “frequently” lonely, in keeping with information from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which is taken into account the gold commonplace of consultant surveys and is carried out biennially on the University of Michigan.

Contrary to narratives suggesting a rising fee of loneliness amongst seniors, the prevalence of self-reported “frequent loneliness” amongst older adults within the U.S. remained comparatively flat from 1998 to 2016, in keeping with a latest analysis by James Raymo, a demographer and sociology professor at Princeton University.

“There are little bumps and blips here and there,” says Raymo, who used HRS information and inhabitants statistics to establish the results of loneliness on life expectancy amongst completely different inhabitants segments, “but it is largely stable over this period, which is a period of time in which attention to and concern about loneliness, and the description of the loneliness epidemic has, from my perspective, grown.”

Polling information means that the rate of loneliness among older adults spiked in the course of the pandemic, however youthful folks appear to have suffered from loneliness at even higher rates on account of social distancing.

People expertise loneliness in any respect levels of life, however older adults are at a a lot greater danger of experiencing the associated hostile well being outcomes, says Necka.

“Older adults have generally been much more resilient than younger adults to social distancing, which I think is somewhat surprising to a lot of people,” she says. Early proof means that, with the reopening of companies and the easing of social distancing tips, loneliness is returning to pre-pandemic ranges, Necka provides.

Research hurdles and future instructions

Loneliness is complicated, nuanced and complicated in that there’s an absence of uniformly accepted terminology surrounding it. For instance, social isolation – outlined as an goal lack of social contacts – is commonly conflated with loneliness. But these ideas are distinct; an individual could be content material with out social contact, or lonely regardless of plentiful social ties, if these connections aren’t perceived as significant.

In addition, whereas loneliness is linked with elevated danger of growing critical well being circumstances, a lot of these circumstances additionally improve an individual’s danger of experiencing loneliness. This creates a vicious cycle within the lives of sufferers and a possible endogeneity downside for researchers. (Endogeneity – when a variable not included in a statistical mannequin is expounded to a variable that’s included – can obscure causality in analysis.)

“I really struggle when I see patients who, without even a moment’s hesitation, get approved for a $50,000 Alzheimer’s drug that probably won’t make a difference in their quality of life or wellbeing, but it’s impossible to get funding for some of these social programs that can have a huge impact on their quality of life.”

Dr. Ashwin Kotwal

Loneliness can also be tough to measure, partly because of issues with pinpointing when loneliness begins and stops and when it persists for too lengthy, in addition to the usage of numerous assessments. Further, as a result of it’s unethical to conduct randomized experiments during which individuals are assigned to be lonely, researchers depend on survey information. But whether or not these surveys are carried out over the telephone or in writing can change the outcomes (analysis suggests individuals are extra keen to establish as lonely in writing).

The prevalence of loneliness varies amongst completely different inhabitants segments. Much analysis has been dedicated to understanding which teams are most in danger for experiencing continual loneliness. People dwelling in poverty and people who endure from cognitive impairments, mobility points, and sensory impairments, reminiscent of listening to and imaginative and prescient loss, are on the highest danger. A 2020 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine additionally highlights immigrants and individuals who establish as LGBTQ+ as being at greater danger.

Medical professionals are more and more recognizing their position on the entrance strains of the battle in opposition to loneliness. Indeed, for the tens of millions of chronically lonely older adults within the U.S., a fast chat with a health care provider is certainly one of only a few conversations about their very own well being and wellbeing.

Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, a researcher and palliative care doctor on the University of California in San Francisco, says the pandemic helped to destigmatize loneliness, and extra clinicians at the moment are asking their sufferers about their social wellbeing. But systemic change is required, he says, to speed up social prescribing  (when sufferers are prescribed social help from group applications) and funding for present applications.

“We need to start breaking down these boundaries between social needs and medical needs,” says Kotwal. “I really struggle when I see patients who, without even a moment’s hesitation, get approved for a $50,000 Alzheimer’s drug that probably won’t make a difference in their quality of life or wellbeing, but it’s impossible to get funding for some of these social programs that can have a huge impact on their quality of life.”

A broad vary of interventions

Because the expertise of loneliness varies on the particular person stage, there isn’t any universally efficient intervention.

“You can think of loneliness like setting your thermostat,” explains Necka, of the NIA. “I might prefer my house a little bit warmer; you might prefer your house a little bit colder. What will make us feel socially connected, in terms of the objective interactions we’re having, will differ from person to person.”

Prior to the pandemic, many interventions centered on growing cognitive expertise – educating folks socialize, an method based mostly largely on a 2010 meta-analysis of intervention studies. More lately, researchers have seen promising outcomes related to enrolling lonely folks to assist others by volunteer applications, Necka says, however these findings haven’t but been revealed. Training social help personnel, reminiscent of Meals on Wheels delivery drivers, to follow empathetic listening has additionally proven promise as a doubtlessly scalable intervention.

The pandemic compelled many older folks to change into comfy with applied sciences like videoconferencing to be in contact with family and friends. This has led to a rising emphasis on digital expertise, with many more moderen intervention research involving the supply of direct social contact through videoconferencing. Robot companions have additionally been proven to cut back emotions of loneliness and anxiousness.

Both inside and out of doors of the well being care group, there’s a broad recognition of the necessity for holistic approaches that deliver collectively numerous disciplines and stakeholders. Experts in a wide range of fields, starting from psychology to public transportation to the arts, have already spent many years finding out loneliness and methods to supply reduction.

Amy McLennan, a senior fellow within the school of cybernetics at Australian National University, expressed concern in a 2018 letter to the Lancet that well being care professionals run the danger of stifling broad-based collaboration by describing loneliness as a well being downside to be solved by the medical group. McLennan, who primarily researches weight problems, says she’s seen this phenomenon earlier than.

“It’s been really hard to have a conversation around obesity as more than a medical concern because the public imagination of it by now has taken on board this idea of it being a medical thing that needs to be treated by doctors and diagnosed by doctors,” she tells The Journalist’s Resource. “The narratives that we put into the public domain do get picked up by the public, and they’re very hard to unwind later.”

Kotwal, who treats terminally sick sufferers, sees the pandemic and the rising quantity of loneliness-related analysis as fueling necessary progress towards an inflection level in well being care. Ultimately, he says, with out systemic adjustments that facilitate elevated social prescribing and spending on sufferers’ social wellbeing, the potential for clinicians to assist alleviate affected by continual loneliness might be severely restricted.

“How can we take a little bit of what we’re spending on medical care and redirect it to social care?” asks Kotwal. “I think clinicians have to be advocates for that change. Many of these other disciplines have been trying to do this for a long time, and we are playing catch-up, honestly. We’ve been behind for a long time here. I’m hopeful that the pandemic and some of the growing evidence in this space will push people to start doing this.”

Studies revealed lately have examined the prevalence of loneliness and hyperlinks between low ranges of human contact and poor well being outcomes, in addition to the efficacy of intervention supply strategies and particular interventions. Below is a curated record of seven peer-reviewed research on loneliness and social isolation, together with summaries of their most necessary findings and extra insights from interviews with a number of the authors.

Research Roundup:

Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith; et al. Perspectives in Psychological Science, March 2015.

One of the most-cited research on loneliness and social isolation, this paper concludes {that a} lack of human connection is as detrimental to well being as different established danger elements, like smoking and weight problems. The researchers examined 70 research carried out between 1980 and 2014, for a complete pattern dimension of greater than 3.4 million adults with a mean age of 66, in an effort to find out the extent to which social isolation, loneliness, and dwelling alone influenced the probability of dying among the many pattern inhabitants.

They concluded that the elevated probability of dying was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for dwelling alone. The variations in these impact sizes was not statistically important, explains Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, and many of the research included within the evaluation didn’t take a look at multiple situation to find out overlap (i.e. whether or not somebody who lived alone was additionally lonely). All of the research did, nonetheless, management for preliminary well being standing, as a option to rule out reverse causality. The outcomes recommend that social isolation and dwelling alone are as a lot a predictor of early dying as loneliness, however the the explanation why are presumed to be completely different.

“If you’re having a heart attack, and there’s no one in your home to call 9-1-1, that’s going to have a significant effect on whether you survive that heart attack or not,” Holt-Lunstad tells The Journalist’s Resource.

While age and prior well being standing had been important in figuring out impact dimension, the outcomes had been constant throughout genders and world areas, in keeping with the research. Social isolation was extra predictive of dying in folks youthful than age 65, the researchers discovered.

A Meta-Analysis of Interventions to Reduce Loneliness

Christopher Masi; et al. Personality and Social Psychology Review, August 2010.

In this meta-analysis, the researchers examined 50 randomized group comparability research on the efficacy of assorted loneliness interventions, concluding that the simplest amongst them addressed points with social cognition, or how folks course of and apply details about different folks.

A lonely particular person, in different phrases, may interpret social interactions as extra destructive than they’re and use these destructive interpretations to verify ideas about their very own lack of social skills or worthiness, thus perpetuating loneliness. The researchers theorize that this sample stems from the state of hypervigilance related to persistent loneliness, which might impair govt perform and decision-making.

This led to a collection of intervention methods addressing “maladaptive social cognition,” although many proved ineffective after additional research.

The Epidemiology of Social Isolation and Loneliness Among Older Adults During the Last Years of Life

Ashwin Kotwal; et al. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, August 2021.

In this research, the researchers appeared to know the charges and danger elements of social isolation and loneliness amongst individuals who had been inside 4 years of dying. By modeling information from the Health and Retirement Study mixed with different information sources, the researchers discovered that about 19% of individuals within the research pattern skilled social isolation, 18% skilled loneliness, and 5% skilled each.

Risk elements for each isolation and loneliness included having a person internet value of lower than $6,000, listening to impairment and issue making ready meals. Factors related to loneliness, however not social isolation, included being feminine, having ache, incontinence, and cognitive impairment.

“We really are now thinking about addressing these social needs as an important opportunity to improve people’s quality of life when people are seriously ill or even finding ways to integrate them into their medical goals,” says Kotwal.

Accompanying the analysis paper, in the identical subject of the journal, is an editorial, written by two physicians at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. Drs. Diane Meier and Sean Morrison advocate for rising authorities help for addressing the social determinants of well being, which play a substantial position within the well being experiences of older adults in America.

“Despite recognition of the foundational role of social factors in achieving health, we continue to put nearly all of our taxpayer-funded healthcare dollars into direct medical services (more than 95% of healthcare dollars at a cost of >$10,000 per person per year),” they write. “This mismatch between spending and need results in our healthcare quality being ranked 37th among that of 100 developed nations, behind Costa Rica, and just ahead of Cuba and Slovenia.”

Loneliness at Older Ages in the United States: Lonely Life Expectancy and the Role of Loneliness in Health Disparities

James Raymo and Jia Wang,. Demography, June 2022.

Using information from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, the researchers utilized the statistical instruments of demography to calculate a measure they name “lonely life expectancy” to know the influence of loneliness on common life expectancy for numerous inhabitants segments. For instance, males 55 years and older, on common, spend about 3.4 years lonely, which equates to roughly 14% of their complete common life expectancy. This research additionally discovered that charges of loneliness amongst older adults remained comparatively regular from 1998 to 2006.

One of the shocking findings from the analysis was that disparities in charges of loneliness alongside racial strains relied on how loneliness was outlined, says lead research creator James Raymo, a demographer and sociology professor at Princeton University. Using scales that measure respondents’ “sense of belonging” and “feeling left out” resulted in greater discrepancies in charges of loneliness amongst racial and ethnic minorities in contrast with whites.

The research additionally confirmed that greater charges of loneliness amongst deprived teams don’t immediately correlate to greater charges of mortality or illness, Raymo says.

“We show that Blacks are lonelier than whites,” Raymo tells The Journalist’s Resource. “We show that less educated people are lonelier than higher educated people. But [further] analysis shows that, despite the fact that we know loneliness to be related to health outcomes and mortality, the concentration of higher levels of loneliness among more disadvantaged people does not account for their higher levels of mortality or higher probability of onset of disability and things like that. So that was a little bit surprising – how little salience loneliness had in accounting for, at least in a statistical sense, the differences in these various health outcomes across the racial, ethnic, and educational groups.”

Friends from the Future: A Scoping Review of Research into Robots and Computer Agents to Combat Loneliness in Older People

Norina Gasteiger, Kate Loveys, Mikaela Law, and Elizabeth Broadbent. Clinical Interventions in Aging, May 2021.

Based on a assessment of 29 research, this paper concludes that present analysis factors to “social robots” as an efficient option to cut back loneliness in older adults, “using features that encourage direct companionship and facilitate social interactions.” Because the vast majority of the research reviewed (24) handled robots – like Paro, a robotic child seal used to consolation nursing residence residents – the analysis was inconclusive on the efficacy of “computer agents,” like chatbots.

Elizabeth Broadbent, a professor within the Department of Psychological Medicine on the University of Auckland in New Zealand, was an creator on this paper, in addition to previous analysis on Paro, which was developed in Japan.

“It makes these little seal noises, like helpless animal noises,” she says. “And that makes you want to pick it up and comfort it and cuddle it and pat it and talk to it as well.”

The majority of research confirmed that robots or laptop brokers positively impacted not less than one loneliness consequence measure. Some unintended destructive penalties on social outcomes had been reported, reminiscent of disappointment when a robotic was taken away from a research participant.

Overall, the robots helped fight loneliness by performing as a direct companion (69%), a catalyst for social interplay (41%), facilitating distant communication with others (10%) and reminding customers of upcoming social engagements (3%).

Evaluation of the Effectiveness of Digital Technology Interventions to Reduce Loneliness in Older Adults: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis

Syed Ghulam Sarwar Shah; et al. Journal of Medical Internet Research, June 2021.

This paper outlines outcomes from an analysis of six research of loneliness interventions designed to facilitate elevated social connections utilizing digital applied sciences, together with 5 medical trials. A complete of 646 folks (66% of them ladies) with a mean age of 73-78 participated within the six research, every lasting three months or extra, analyzing interventions involving stay videoconferencing, in addition to Alexa-like audio and televised video help.

The total impact estimates confirmed no statistically important distinction within the effectiveness of digital expertise interventions in contrast with that of ordinary care or different interventions. However, the researchers word that the standard of proof was very low to average within the trials.

Lead researcher Syed Ghulam Sarwar Shah, a doctor and senior analysis fellow at Oxford University, says he believes the outcomes reveal that digital expertise interventions aren’t any substitute for human interplay in the true world. As a outcome, he’s engaged on growing an app known as Evzein, which seeks to leverage native eating places and pubs as locations the place lonely folks can meet and join.

Shah says further analysis is required to find out whether or not digital expertise interventions are efficient in decreasing loneliness amongst younger folks and different specialised teams that had been disproportionately affected by loneliness in the course of the pandemic.

Improving Social Connectedness for Homebound Older Adults: Randomized Controlled Trial of Tele-Delivered Behavioral Activation Versus Tele-Delivered Friendly Visits

Namkee G. Choi, Renee Pepin, C. Nathan Marti, Courtney J. Stevens, and Martha L. Bruce. American Journal of Geriatric Psychology, July 2020

These researchers modified a short-term intervention often called “behavioral activation” that’s normally used to deal with gentle depressive signs in older adults, with the aim of decreasing loneliness. A randomized managed trial confirmed promising outcomes for the intervention, each initially and through a follow-up study carried out a 12 months later.

Behavioral activation includes educating recipients concerning the situation it’s seeking to deal with, on this case loneliness, in an effort to normalize it. An interventionist educated in BA assists folks in figuring out actions that maintain specific worth for them and discovering new methods to have interaction in them, regardless of the practical or well being limitations they could be experiencing. If church is de facto necessary to somebody, for instance, however they not attend as a result of they don’t have a driver’s license, behavioral activation focuses on serving to them discover one other option to get there, explains Renee Pepin, an assistant professor of group and household drugs at Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine.

In the research, Meals on Wheels recipients in New Hampshire and Texas had been cut up into two teams. One group obtained common behavioral activation periods through teleconference; the opposite group obtained pleasant chats through teleconference, with out the specialised intervention. Compared to the group that obtained pleasant visits, the behavioral activation group skilled a ten% larger improve in social interplay, 20% larger lower in loneliness, 39% larger lower in depressive signs, and 21% larger lower in incapacity.

“The intervention holds promise for scalability in programs that already serve homebound older adults,” the researchers write.

Pepin says individuals employed to ship the intervention within the research weren’t Meals on Wheels drivers. “We tried to select people with similar characteristics as people who work for home-delivered meals,” she mentioned. “A next step for this line of research is absolutely to see, does it work the same way or similarly if we actually do employ people who work within these agencies to deliver this intervention?”

Tips for Reporters Covering Loneliness Among Older Adults

1. Know the distinction between social isolation and loneliness. Social isolation is outlined as an goal lack of social contact, whereas loneliness is the subjective want to have extra or higher-quality social connections than one is at present experiencing. Some folks could be socially remoted with out feeling distressed, and others can really feel lonely regardless of having common social contact; it’s uncommon for folks to expertise each on the similar time. Research means that continual social isolation and continual loneliness are related to destructive well being outcomes, however in several methods.

2. Seek sources exterior of well being care. Clinicians know deal with issues throughout the confines of the well being care system, however loneliness is a social subject addressed by a wide range of different group stakeholders. Senior facilities, nonprofit help applications, arts organizations, public social companies businesses, and others have been confronting and dealing onerous to deal with the issue of loneliness for many years.

3. Tell private tales. Because the expertise of loneliness is private and varies on the particular person stage, it’s necessary to speak to people who find themselves experiencing it, as this will help to cut back stigma and spur coverage change. Home meal-delivery companies and different native nonprofits serving seniors could be good beginning factors for locating sources.

4. Explain the place folks can go for assist. Many older people who find themselves lonely in addition to those that care about seniors experiencing loneliness don’t know the place to show. Urging readers, viewers and listeners in these conditions to succeed in out to a trusted member of the family, doctor or group help employee is useful, as are lists of sources, such because the Eldercare Locator.

5. Check your bias. Because loneliness is common, folks typically suppose again to their very own experiences for context, however that may unknowingly introduce bias into the dialog. People have a tendency to recollect what helped them overcome a selected bout of loneliness and consider the identical answer can be useful to others. However, as a result of social wants and circumstances differ a lot, there isn’t any universally efficient intervention for loneliness.

Additional Resources

Commit to Connect – a public-private marketing campaign and useful resource clearinghouse hosted by the federal Administration for Community Living.

Foundation for Social Connection – nonprofit charitable group selling evidence-based analysis and interventions.

Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness (CESIL) – Advocacy group supporting coverage adjustments aimed toward decreasing loneliness and related destructive well being results.

Social Isolation and Loneliness Outreach Toolkit – This web page from the National Institute on Aging options movies, graphics, flyers and brochures to be used by media and group organizations to boost public consciousness and cut back stigma surrounding loneliness and social isolation.

Eldercare Locator – A service of the US Administration on Aging, the Eldercare Locator connects folks to native companies for older adults and their households.

Project UnLonely – This nationwide initiative by the Foundation for Art and Healing raises consciousness concerning the destructive results of loneliness and empowers folks to attach with one another by the humanities.

Programs Promoting Interaction

The AARP recommends the next intergenerational applications to ease loneliness in older adults:

Big & Mini – An group that matches older folks with youthful folks for on-line chats and friendship.

SAGEConnect – a phone-buddy program that matches older LGBT folks with volunteers for weekly telephone calls.

Eldera – This service pairs mentors 60 and older within the U.S. with youngsters ages 5 to 18 from 22 nations for video chats.

Dorot Caring Calls – Connects older adults with volunteers 18 and up for weekly telephone calls, based mostly on individuals’ preferences.

Create the Good – This AARP website lists hundreds of native and nationwide volunteer alternatives and pairs seniors with volunteer work that matches their preferences.


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