New poll looks at the consequences of social isolation on older adults

Liz Seegert

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

isolation and loneliness in seniors

Photo: Andy Fisher via Flickr

Most older adults say they’re more lonely than ever and have little contact with friends or neighbors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new poll released Sept. 14 from the University of Michigan. The results further reinforce the concern for the long-term mental and physical health effects of the pandemic on older adults.

Some 56% of respondents over the age of 50 reported in June 2020 that they sometimes or often felt isolated from others ― more than twice the 27% who felt that way in a similar poll in 2018. Nearly half of those in the latest poll also said they felt more isolated than they had just before the pandemic arrived in the United States. A third said they felt they had less companionship than before.

The risks of social isolation and loneliness for older people was well known before the pandemic hit. Articles like this one in JAMA Psychiatry pointed to worsening adverse effects, like premature mortality, worsening chronic conditions and increased risk for cognitive decline as COVID-19 lingers. (Our recent tip sheet on mental health effects of COVID-19 on older adults describe these risks in more detail).

However, there are some positive signs, according to the poll. Technology can help alleviate some of the effects of isolation, with 59% of those over 50 reporting they used social media at least once a week and 31% used video chat at least that often. Technology helped many over 50 connect with others, including the 59% who reported using social media at least once a week, and the 31% who used video chat at least once a week. And many older adults said they engaged in healthy behaviors despite the pandemic ― including 75% who said they were getting outdoors or interacting with nature and 62% who got exercise several times a week. Those experiencing loneliness were less likely to engage in these healthy behaviors.

“The change we see in these measures in less than two years is truly remarkable,” said Preeti Malani, M.D., a professor at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the Healthy Aging Poll. Using technology to bridge the gap and keeping up healthy routines such as exercise, healthy eating and getting enough sleep will continue to be important in the months ahead, especially as colder weather may limit time outdoors.

Malani, an internal medicine physician with expertise in geriatrics and immunology, noted that 80% of those polled in June said they were eating a healthy diet and 81% said they got enough sleep ― almost the same as in the 2018 poll

The poll also found that half of those who live alone, and just over half (52%) of those who are unemployed or disabled, said they felt a lack of companionship ― compares with 39% of those who live with others, work or are retired. Just over half of those who said their physical health was fair or poor, and two-thirds of those who said the same about their mental health, said they lacked companionship. Nearly three-quarters of those who said their mental health was fair or poor said they felt isolated, compared with 55% of those reporting better mental health.

The poll results are based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,074 adults between ages 50 and 80, who answered a range of questions online. The study was conducted for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation (IHPI). Michigan Medicine (the university’s medical center) and AARP provided support for this effort.

Resources

  • The Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness and the National Coalition on Mental Health and Aging co-sponsored a webinar in May that took an in-depth look at the scope of the problem, including the biological impacts of social isolation and loneliness, interventions and promising practices, and policy considerations. (Powerpoint slides are available).
  • Could all this social isolation among older adults in long-term care be killing them? This AARP article takes a look.
  • This opinion piece by Penn State researchers is a good explainer on the mental health effects of loneliness. They say certain coping strategies may help minimize the buildup of tau protein in the brain.

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