(CORDIS) — No one likes to be lonely but the elderly are affected most as they suffer from myriad health problems and are at a higher risk of succumbing to death, a new study from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) in the United States shows. The findings were presented in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
The UCSF researchers evaluated data in a nationally representative study, called the Health and Retirement Study – conducted by the National Institute on Aging in the period 2002-2008 – to investigate the effect loneliness has on older people.
‘In our typical medical model, we don’t think of subjective feelings as affecting health,’ said lead author Professor Carla Perissinotto from the Division of Geriatrics at UCSF. ‘It’s intriguing to find that loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline.’
It should be noted that the researchers identified there is no connection between loneliness and actually living alone. They observed that of the 43% of subjects that felt lonely, only 18% lived on their own.
‘We are interested in identifying the different factors that cause adults to become functionally impaired and ultimately at risk for nursing home admission,’ Dr Perissinotto explained. ‘The ageing of our population and the greater odds of institutionalisation make it important for us to think about all the factors that are putting elders in danger, including social and environmental risks.’
The UCSF team put the spotlight on death and a decrease in a person’s capacity to carry out routine activities, including walking and climbing stairs.
The results showed that subjects that felt loneliness had an adjusted risk ratio of 1.59 or a statistically significant 59% greater risk of decline. The hazard ratio was 1.45 or 45% higher risk of death for fatal cases.
‘This is one of those outcomes you don’t want to see because it was terrible to find out it was actually true,’ Professor Perissinotto pointed out. ‘We went into the analysis thinking that there was a risk we could find nothing, but there actually was a strong correlation.’
According to the researchers, the effect loneliness has on the elderly differs from the impact depression has on them. Loneliness affects people who are fully functional but feel desolate. People who suffer from depression have no motivation, no energy and are unhappy.
The team said the ageing population of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, people born between 1946 and 1964, will grow two-fold by 2050, with the number reaching 88.5 million.
Professor Perissinotto said what is key is to introduce comprehensive medical and social services for ageing patients. It is also important to remember what kinds of social interventions they need, she added.
‘Asking about chronic diseases is not enough,’ the UCSF researchers said. ‘There’s much more going on in people’s homes and their communities that is affecting their health. If we don’t ask about it, we are missing a very important and independent risk factor. We don’t think we can change genetics, but we can intervene when someone is lonely and help prevent some functional decline.’