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Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health

Older People Living with Loneliness Face Functional Decline and Death

‘Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons. We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death…’

June 18, 2012 - In older persons, loneliness is known as a common source of distress and impaired quality of life. A new study, however, finds that loneliness in people over 60 years of age is even more serious – it can lead to functional decline and death.

In a report published Online First by Archives of Internal Medicine, a JAMA Network publication, In this study, patients suffering loneliness were associated with an increased risk of death over a six-year follow-up period (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent).

Loneliness also was associated with functional decline, including:
   ● being more likely to experience decline in activities of daily living (24.8 percent vs. 12.5 percent),
   ● developing difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5 percent vs. 28.3 percent) and
   ● difficulty in stair climbing (40.8 percent vs. 27.9 percent).


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Read the latest news on Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health


The study of 1,604 participants in the Health and Retirement Study, Carla M. Perissinotto, M.D., M.H.S., of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues examined the relationship between loneliness and risk of functional decline and death in older individuals.

Fifty-nine percent of those studied were women; 81% were white, 11%, black, and 6%, Hispanic; and 18% lived alone.

Note: Almost 1 in 5 of those in this study lived alone and another report in this issue of Archives of Internal Medicine reports that living alone also increases the risk of death.

The participants (average age 71) were asked if they felt left out, isolated or a lack of companionship. Of the participants, 43.2 percent reported feeling lonely, which was defined as reporting one of the loneliness items at least some of the time, according to the study results.

 “Loneliness is a common source of suffering in older persons. We demonstrated that it is also a risk factor for poor health outcomes including death and multiple measures of functional decline,” the authors comment.

The authors say their study could have important public health implications.

“Assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice. However, loneliness may be as an important of a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors,” the researchers note.

“Our results suggest that questioning older persons about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying elderly persons at risk of disability and poor health outcomes.”

This project was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Aging.

Invited Commentary: What are We Really Measuring?

 “Loneliness is a negative feeling that would be worth addressing even if the condition had no health implications,” write Emily M. Bucholz, M.P.H., and Harlan M. Krumholz, M.D., S.M., of the Yale University School of Medicine in an invitged commentary.

“Nevertheless, with regard to health implications, scientists examining social support should build on studies such as those published in this issue and be challenged to investigate mechanisms as well as practical interventions that can be used to address the social factors that undermine health.”


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