Living to a healthy old age may depend on your ties to family, friends and community, according to research that finds lonely older adults are more likely to die sooner than their more social peers.
Loneliness in adults age 60 and older was associated with a 45 percent higher risk of dying over six years, according to research published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine. A separate study showed that people living alone with heart disease were 25 percent more likely to die from the illness and 27 percent more likely to die of any cause.
About one in seven Americans live by themselves, the researchers wrote. The first study to examine the link between social isolation and death in a representative U.S. population points to the importance of addressing psychosocial needs along with medical ones in improving the health of older adults, according to Carla Perissinotto, a study author.
“We cannot continue to ignore the other things that are happening in people’s lives,” said Perissinotto, an assistant professor of medicine and geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, by telephone. “If we turn a blind eye to what our patients are experiencing at home, we may be missing a place to make a difference in someone’s health.”
Psychosocial stresses brought on by loneliness, including anxiety and depression, can boost heart risks, said Deepak Bhatt, chief of cardiology at the VA Boston Healthcare System and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the senior author on the cardiac risk and loneliness study.
Bhatt reported on 44,573 people who were part of the Reduction of Atherothrombosis for Continued Health Registry, 19 percent of whom lived alone.
The research found a 24 percent higher risk of dying for those who were between the ages of 45 and 65 and lived alone. There was a 12 percent higher risk of dying for those between the ages of 66 and 80 who lived by themselves.
The study looking at overall health involved 1,604 men and women who were part of the Health and Retirement Study. They were assessed in 2002 and followed until 2008. In the study, 43 percent said they were lonely, a situation defined as answering yes to one of the three questions.
The researchers found that 23 percent of those who said they were lonely died over the six-year study compared with 14 percent of those who didn’t feel that way.
The study also showed that those who said they were lonely were 59 percent more likely to see a decline in their ability to perform activities of daily living.
Those who live alone may not always call the doctor or an ambulance if they are having a medical emergency, Bhatt said. The next step is to look at ways to mitigate this risk, he said.
“If physicians get into the habit of asking patients if they’re living alone, that might impact the care given,” Bhatt said in a telephone interview.