Paying for loneliness in years and health – Editors’ Columns

A new study adds to the evidence of the negative effects of loneliness on older adults, this time linking it to life expectancy as well as overall health and the need for assistance with activities of daily living. 

In fact, the researchers, publishing in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, say their study represents the first time that the effect of loneliness in old age on life and health expectancy has been categorically quantified.

The bottom line?

“We found that lonely older adults can expect to live a shorter life than their peers who don’t perceive themselves as lonely,” said the study’s lead author, Rahul Malhotra, M.D., MPH, an assistant professor and head of Research at Duke-NUS’ Center for Aging Research and Education (CARE) in Singapore. “Furthermore, they pay a penalty for their shorter life by forfeiting potential years of good health.”

Yasuhiko Saito, Ph.D., a research project professor from the College of Economics at Nihon University in Tokyo and a senior co-author of the study, pointed out that the study is timely “because stay-at-home and physical distancing measures instituted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have only intensified concern for the mental and physical well-being of older persons.”

The findings may be something to factor into senior living community visitation restrictions should new variants of the coronavirus or the annual flu virus necessitate them.

And they are quite eye-catching.

Researchers found that 60-year-olds who perceive themselves to be lonely some of the time or most of the time can expect to live three to five years less, on average, than peers who perceive themselves as never being lonely. At age 70, lonely people can, on average, expect to live three to four years less compared with their non-lonely peers. And at age 80, lonely people can, on average, expect to live two to three years less than peers who don’t perceive themselves as being lonely.

The researchers also found that the perception of loneliness has a similar effect on two types of health expectancy: remaining years of life lived in a self-rated state of good health, and remaining years of life lived without being limited when performing ADLs.

At age 60, they found, sometimes lonely or mostly lonely older adults can expect to spend three to five fewer years of their remaining lives, on average, without ADL limitations, compared with never-lonely peers. At age 70, their active life expectancy goes down to two to four fewer years, on average. At age 80, it is at one to three fewer years, on average.

Pandemic or not, the findings should serve as extra motivation for senior living providers to continue to find ways to ensure that residents are not feeling lonely but, if they are, to find ways to help them feel engaged and not isolated.

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