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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 06/21/2012

Loneliness linked to older people’s death, disability

I hate to think of anyone’s being lonely. But I’ve generally considered loneliness a sad, temporary situation, not a serious threat to a person’s health.

A study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that, among older people, feeling lonely may substantially impair day-to-day ability to function and even increase risk of death.

Researchers at University of California, San Francisco analyzed data from the National Institute on Aging’s Health and Retirement Study for 1,064 people ages 60 and up. Respondents’ mean age was 71; about 59 percent were female and 81 percent were white.

In addition to information about their physical health and medical conditions, socioeconomic status, living conditions and such factors as depression, they looked at the answers given to three questions about loneliness: how often do you feel left out, feel isolated or lack companionship. People were deemed lonely if they responded “some of the time” or “often” to any of those questions; they were considered not lonely if they responded “hardly ever” to all three.

The results were striking – and sad.

About 43 percent of those surveyed were deemed lonely. After controlling for confounding factors (including depression), loneliness was associated with a nearly 60-percent increased risk of functional decline (loss of ability to perform everyday tasks such as bathing and feeding themselves, climbing stairs, walking, lifting things with their arms, and so forth) during the six-year follow-up period than the folks who were not deemed lonely.

Worse yet, loneliness was linked to a 45 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period.

Those findings deliver an extra jolt when you consider that just 18 percent of the people surveyed lived alone – and nearly 75 percent were married.

The authors note that physicians don’t typically ask their patients whether they feel lonely and acknowledge that making such a conversation a routine part of a checkup would add yet another burden on already time-strapped doctors. But they still argue in favor of instituting loneliness screening because their findings were so dramatic.

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

By Jennifer Huget  |  07:00 AM ET, 06/21/2012

Tags:  loneliness health

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