Sep 10, 2021

New research: Why loneliness can be fatal for older adults

Lonely old man window

The study “illustrates the need for hospitals to identify older patients who lack social networks and connect them with programs designed to provide isolated individuals support,” shared Dr Lauren E. Ferrante, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Yale School of Medicine and the senior author of the paper.

With former colleague Jason Falvey, now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Ferrante and the Yale team examined data from 997 patients in the National Health and Aging Trends study who were admitted to ICUs between 2011 and 2018. 

They tracked their health one year after their admission to hospital.

Participants were asked questions about their social interactions, such as whether they talk to family or friends about important matters, visit family or friends, or if they participate in social events, such as church. 

Levels of social isolation were ranked from zero to six.

Overall, the researchers found patients over the age of 65 are more likely to have functional problems, such as difficulty dressing or walking, after discharge from a stay in hospital that included a period in ICU. 

Each increase in social isolation score corresponded to an increased risk of functional disability and death, the researchers found. 

The most socially isolated older adults had a 119% greater risk of death in the year after an ICU admission, and a 50% higher burden of functional disability.

“Our work is focused on understanding and improving the functional recovery of older adults who survive the ICU,” said Ferrante. 

Ferrante suggested that after older patients are discharged, hospital volunteers could check in weekly to see how they are, and for tasks such as arranging transport to appointments. 

Social workers could help by enrolling older people in programs that facilitate social engagement.

Hospitalisation can be an opportunity to identify people who are socially isolated, said Ferrante. 

The study was published on September 7 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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