New Study Reveals Link Between Loneliness and High-Risk Medication Use Among Aging Population

James Im, a recent graduate student, led a research project at Women’s College Hospital (WCH) as part of his practicum, which focused on evaluating whether there are sex differences in the link between loneliness and polypharmacy, or the use of five or more medications simultaneously, in older adults.

Working with researchers and scientists, including Dr. Rachel Savage, his main supervisor at the Women’s Age Lab, their findings suggest that severe loneliness is associated with polypharmacy among aging women, and prescribed medication combinations varied depending on an individual’s sex and level of loneliness.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society recently. We interviewed James to learn more about his experience and findings.

Why is this research study important?

Our study is important because while older adults have among the highest rates of loneliness and prescription medication use, the relationship between loneliness and medication use hasn’t been investigated extensively. We also don’t know the role sex plays in this relationship. Our study addresses an important research gap that can inform better practice for clinicians in the care of both older women and men.  

In what ways do you believe the findings of your study can potentially improve patient care, particularly for older adults?

Our findings provide more insight into the fact that older adults, and older women specifically, are a high-risk group with different healthcare and psychosocial needs. Ultimately, I think they can be used to inform clinicians of the need to consider the impacts of and assess loneliness during routine care. Doing so may help alleviate risks and harms due to polypharmacy.  

What’s your biggest take-away from this research study?

The fact that we gave a lens to older women versus older men is extremely important. Too often, we don’t quite consider the differential effects among women and men. It’s not enough to only consider that older adults are at risk – we also need to consider how their other identities compound. Our results found that this relationship is more pronounced among older women – this gives us direction on how we can cater to different demographics. 

How has working on this research study influenced your academic and career goals moving forward?

I’ve had the privilege to learn from great scientists at Women’s Age Lab for this research project. By virtue of being there, I’ve gained a lot of skills that have helped me learn how to analyze data and how to conduct research. All these skills are things that I’ll take with me for the next step of my career.

How did your collaboration with other researchers or healthcare professionals at WCH contribute to the success of this study?

There is such a wealth of knowledge at Women’s Age Lab. Collaboration with other researchers and healthcare professionals was very important throughout all stages of the study. For example, I got a lot of help when I was planning the analysis of the study and that really helped me make sure that the analysis we did was feasible and rigorous. Additionally, I received a lot of guidance in finding direction for the manuscript to make sure it really highlighted the clinical applicability of our work.

As a student research lead, what advice would you give to other students interested in pursuing research projects in the field of geriatrics or related healthcare disciplines?

Generally, research can be difficult – a lot of things can go wrong. The key is to stick with it. I found myself very fortunate to work with great supervisors. I can’t thank Dr. Savage, scientist at Women’s Age Lab, enough for all the guidance she gave me – I consider myself very fortunate. For those wanting to get involved, I think it’s helpful to reach out and look for opportunities. Keep your head up!