WCH CONNECTApril 29, 2019

Five things you should know about loneliness and its effect on older adults

  • April 29, 2019
  • BY Jaimie Roebuck


Dr. Nathan Stall
Dr. Nathan Stall

By 2025, more than 25 per cent of Canada’s population will be over the age of 65. Despite the number of challenges associated with growing older, it is our responsibility to ensure that this demographic ages well. Recently, there has been a greater spotlight placed on the impact of loneliness among older adults, as it can negatively affect both physical and mental health.

Dr. Nathan Stall, geriatrician and research fellow at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI), along with contributions from Dr. Rachel Savage, postdoctoral fellow at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI) and Dr. Paula Rochon, vice president of research at Women’s College Hospital were published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) for their article highlighting five key points about loneliness and its impact on older adults:

1) Loneliness is an emotional state of perceived social isolation

Loneliness is an emotional state of perceived social isolation effecting three major dimensions:

  • affect (feelings of desperation, boredom and self-deprecation)
  • cognition (negative attitudes towards self and others, and a sense of hopelessness and futility)
  • behaviour (self-absorbed, socially ineffective and passive)

2) Loneliness is common among older adults and linked to declines in health

Community-based studies report that over 40 per cent of older adults, particularly women, experience loneliness. Evidence also suggests that loneliness can accelerate physiological ageing and may lead to a number of other health effects, including elevated blood pressure, increased risk of coronary heart disease, depression and dementia.

3) Loneliness is as harmful as other well-established mortality risk factors

A 2015 meta-analysis of 70 studies involving nearly 3.5 million individuals found that loneliness increased all-cause mortality by 26 per cent. In older adults, loneliness is associated with a 45 per cent increased risk of death – comparable to other known risk factors including obesity and smoking.

4) Loneliness is an important contributor to healthcare utilization

Many lonely older adults seek social contact through healthcare visits. More than 75 per cent of general practitioners in the United Kingdom report seeing between one and five patients a day who visit their office due to loneliness.

5) Social prescribing is an emerging intervention for loneliness

Healthcare practitioners may consider social prescribing to connect lonely older adults with sources of support in the community. Activities to help older adults cope with loneliness include volunteering or joining community groups.

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