Loneliness increases the risk of health deterioration in older adults

Published: 29 February 2024

The loneliness often experienced by older people in our society has a negative effect on their physical health, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow and Amsterdam UMC

The loneliness often experienced by older people in our society has a negative effect on their physical health, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow and Amsterdam UMC.

Published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity, the systematic review analysed research results from more than 130 studies, and found that loneliness led to an increase in physical frailty, which in turn increases the risk of adverse health outcomes such as depression, falls and cognitive decline.

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Led by Dr Peter Hanlon, clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow, along with researchers from Amsterdam UMC, Canada, Australia and Sweden, the research analysed the relationship between social functioning and physical frailty in older adults.

Frailty, described as a state of increased vulnerability to adverse health outcomes, is an increasing medical problem around the world as populations get older. Frailty refers to a lot of different forms of physical deterioration, such as weight loss, reduced walking speed and a decrease in muscle strength. These can all then impact the likelihood of experiencing other health risks, including how likely you are to fall and suffer injury.

While frailty mostly impacts older people, recently researchers have highlighted that frailty can also be found in middle age populations, particularly in those who have underlying health conditions, including diabetes.

Previous research has already indicated that frailty can lead to a decrease in social contact, such that in some cases physical vulnerability can cause people to lose social contacts or become lonelier, because they become less mobile. Now, this new research shows that this relationship can also be reversed, with a decrease in social contact also potentially leading to frailty.

Dr Peter Hanlon, University of Glasgow, said: “Impaired social and physical functioning often occur at the same time. Older people who are physically vulnerable often also have to deal with a decline in both social and mental functioning. As we are caring for older adults, we need to pay attention to all of these aspects.

"Loneliness, for example, is not an easy problem to solve. However, there is more and more knowledge available about possible effective interventions, including activities that support older people to increase their social connections."

Emiel Hoogendijk, epidemiologist at Amsterdam Public Health, said: "Recently, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is more attention for the potential harmful effects of loneliness and social isolation on the health of older people. We wanted to see how far these effects went and saw that all kinds of reduced social functioning, such as loneliness, social isolation and lack of social support, were associated with physical decline in older adults.

"We know that people with feelings of loneliness or with a lack of social contacts have a higher risk of, amongst others, depression and various chronic diseases. For example, a lack of social contact can have a direct effect on the immune system, but it can also have an indirect effect on health, for example through an unhealthier lifestyle. We want to do more research into this in the coming period.”

The paper, ‘The relationship between frailty and social vulnerability: a systematic review’ is published in The Lancet Healthy Longevity. The study was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Enquiries: ali.howard@glasgow.ac.uk or elizabeth.mcmeekin@glasgow.ac.uk

First published: 29 February 2024