A study conducted by University of California – San Francisco researchers suggests that loneliness can be a very detrimental thing for the elderly. When discussing the medical community’s typical view the study’s first author, Carla Perissinotto, MD, MHS, said, “we don’t think of subjective feelings as affecting health”. She went on to say she found it intriguing that “loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline.” The study was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
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The study defines loneliness as the “subjective feeling of isolation, not belonging, or lacking companionship”. Interestingly, it is possible for people who live alone not to feel lonely. However, there are many people who are married, or not physically alone, who do feel lonely. With this in mind, it appears that loneliness has more to do with lacking a desired relationship than with actually being alone.
The study focused on data collected from the psychosocial module of the Health and Retirement Study done by the National Institute on Aging. This study collected information from 1604 participants between 2002 and 2008. The participants were all over the age of 60 with a mean age of 71. The baseline of the study occurred in 2002 and focused on three basic questions:
- Did the participant feel left out?
- Did the participant feel isolated?
- Did the participant lack companionship?
Those that answered some of the time or often to any of the three questions were considered lonely in this study. A follow up was done 6 years later. Those who identified themselves as lonely presented a 59% greater risk of decline and a 45% risk of death. “This is one of those outcomes you don’t want to see because it was terrible to find out it was actually true,” Perissinotto said. “We went into the analysis thinking that there was a risk we could find nothing, but there actually was a strong correlation.”
The harsh reality that the medical community must face is that the “baby boomer” generation is aging. They already represent more than 39.6 million people over the age of 65. Perissinotto hopes to integrate social services along with medical services. “Asking about chronic diseases is not enough,” she 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.”
My parents are part of that “baby boomer” generation, so I feel a personal connection to this story. The “baby boomers ” were a rebellious and wild generation that challenged social norms. Many were bent on personal happiness and often divorced. I say this even as another recent study by AARP found that 1 in 4 marriages of people over 50 are ending in divorce. Considering the troubling correlation between loneliness and declining health, it seems to me the “boomers” better learn to relate to others, or they may suffer the fate of many in this study.