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Population Health News

Loneliness in seniors raises premature death risk by 14%

By Jennifer Bresnick

- One isn’t just the loneliest number: it can also be a deadly one.  Seniors who expressed feelings of extreme loneliness and social isolation had a 14% higher risk of dying prematurely than socially connected patients.  The risk is comparable to that of having a low socioeconomic status, say researchers from the University of Chicago, and the lack of social connection serious impact outcomes among the vulnerable Medicare population.

“We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65,” said John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago during a seminar on “The Science of Resilient Aging” at the February 16 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality.”

With hospitals accepting a greater degree of financial risk for Medicare-aged patients, providers need to be vigilant when assessing seniors, and may consider adding social and mental health data to the routine information collected during a hospital admission.  About half of elderly patients need significant help making decisions about their care when spending time in the hospital, says an unrelated study from JAMA, and those who are socially isolated may not have the family and caregiver support they need to competently take care of their health.  Impaired patients also needed more help with discharge planning, which may be complicated by the lack of voluntary caregivers within the patient’s social circle.

Depression has also been linked to the risk of dementia in senior citizens, and is significantly under-treated in patients over the age of 80, adds a study from General Hospital Psychiatry.  After surveying data from more than 13,000 adult patients, researchers found that nearly one in four exhibited symptoms of depression, with 36.6% of those patients experiencing moderate to severe illnesses.

Seventy percent of depressed adults, including seniors, low-income patients, and minorities, received no treatment for their depression whatsoever.  Untreated depression has been implicated in a lack of medication adherence, which can exacerbate coexisting conditions like diabetes and heart disease that many seniors need to manage carefully.

“Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo says.  “On the periphery, people have fewer friends, yet their loneliness leads them to losing the few ties they have left.”

With social isolation and depression increasingly indicated in a number of serious co-morbidities, and a culprit in decreased quality of life and overall health status, providers and community outreach groups interested in helping seniors maintain optimal health for longer should pay special attention to the difficulties of senior citizens living on their own after the death of a spouse or without the support of grown children and friends nearby.


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