'Loneliness leads to death in elderly'
Loneliness can lead to serious health problems and even death among the elderly, according to researchers in the US.
They have discovered that social factors play major role in older adults' health.
Loneliness can cause suffering to people at any age, but can be especially debilitating to senior citizens and may predict serious health problems and even death, researchers say.
Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) reviewed data from the Health and Retirement Study of over 1,600 older adults between 2002 and 2008.
They focused on death and a decrease in the ability to perform daily activities such as upper extremity tasks, climbing stairs, and walking.
People who identified themselves as lonely had a statistically significant 59% greater risk of health decline and 45% greater risk of death.
"It's intriguing to find that loneliness is independently associated with an increased rate of death and functional decline," said Dr Carla Perissinotto, assistant professor in the UCSF Division of Geriatrics and lead author of the study.
The research team also discovered that loneliness - that unpleasant feeling of emptiness or desolation - does not necessarily correlate with living alone. According to the study, 43% of those surveyed felt lonely, yet only 18% lived alone.
"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 said. "The aging of our population and the greater odds of institutionalization make it important for us to think about all the factors that are putting elders in danger, including social and environmental risks."
"This is one of those outcomes you don't want to see because it was terrible to find out it was actually true," she said. "We went into the analysis thinking that there was a risk we could find nothing, but there actually was a strong correlation."
Dr Perissinotto and her colleagues believe the impact of loneliness on an elderly patient is different from the effects of depression. While depression is linked with a lack enjoyment, energy and motivation, loneliness can be felt in people who are fully functional but feel empty or desolate.
As that population continues to expand, Dr Perissinotto said she hopes to be able to start to integrate social and medical services for elderly patients more comprehensively, and be more mindful of what kinds of social interventions they require.
"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.
"We don't think we can change genetics, but we can intervene when someone is lonely and help prevent some functional decline," she said.
The average age of the study participants was 71 years. Researchers limited their analysis to participants 60 and older. Eighty-one percent were Caucasian, 11% African American, 6% Hispanic, and 2% of unknown ethnicity.
The Health and Retirement Study was conducted by the National Institute on Aging and the research was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
[Posted: Wed 20/06/2012]