Aging & Longevity
Chronically lonely seniors likely to
turn to physicians for social contact
More doctors' office visits by older
adults suffering chronic loneliness
3, 2015 - Experiences of loneliness and social isolation can lead to
increased health care use among seniors, finds new research from the
University of Georgia College of Public Health.
The study, published online in the
American Journal of Public Health, found that the frequency of
physician visits was particularly influenced by chronic loneliness--and
suggests that the identification and targeting of interventions for
lonely elders may significantly decrease physician visits and health
"Logically, it makes sense that
people who are in poorer health because of loneliness would use health
care more," said study co-author Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant
professor of health policy and management.
"But we wondered, could people also
be visiting their doctor or making those extra appointments because they
To answer this question, Emerson
and co-author Jayani Jayawardhana, also an assistant professor in health
policy and management, looked at how loneliness impacted the number of
physician visits and hospitalizations reported by senior adults living
among the general population and not in a retirement community.
Their analysis relied on data from
the 2008 and 2012 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a
national survey of Americans over the age of 50.
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To gauge loneliness, study
participants were asked how often they felt they lacked companionship,
how often they felt left out and how often they felt isolated from
others. Their responses, ranging from "often" to "some of the time" to
"hardly ever or never," were then used to create an index of loneliness,
where higher scores on the scale equaled higher loneliness.
Respondents who were identified as
lonely in both years of the study were considered to be chronically
"We often assume that if a person
has enough friends and relatives they are doing OK. But loneliness is
not the same as being alone. You can be lonely in a crowded room. It's
very much about how you feel about your actual social relationships,"
said Emerson, who is also a faculty member in the college's Institute of
Emerson and Jayawardhana reviewed
responses from 3,530 community-dwelling adults aged 60 and older,
comparing their loneliness scores with their self-reported hospital
stays and physician visits.
The researchers found that while
loneliness experienced at only one time point did not predict health
care use, chronic loneliness--being lonely in both 2008 and 2012--was
significantly associated with an increased number of doctor visits.
Although Emerson and Jayawardhana had hypothesized that chronic
loneliness would impact both physician visits and hospitalizations, only
physician visits were significant in their sample of older adults.
"This finding made sense to us,"
Jayawardhana said. "You build a relationship with your physician over
the years, so a visit to the doctor's office is like seeing a friend.
Hospitalizations, on the other hand, require a referral from a doctor,
and you don't know who you will see."
The study's findings support a
growing body of research establishing loneliness as a significant public
health issue among older adults. Over half of study respondents reported
being lonely, with that percentage increasing from 53 percent to 57
percent four years later.
Lonely respondents also reported
more problems with daily living tasks and a greater number of depressive
symptoms. They also were less likely to count their health as good, very
good or excellent.
Despite its high prevalence of
among seniors and its clear implications on both health outcomes and
health care use, Emerson said, public health officials and medical
professionals pay little attention to loneliness.
The UGA study suggests that since
chronically lonely older adults are likely to turn to physicians for
social contact, health care workers should take loneliness into
consideration as a factor when seeing patients for other illnesses and
"Loneliness is something that is
easily preventable and with little cost compared to other chronic
illnesses," Jayawardhana said.
"With an interventions as simple as
a phone call, home visit or community program, you can avoid unnecessary
health care utilization and additional expenditures that ultimately cost
all of us as a society."
study can be found online
● For more information about the
College of Public Health