The mental and physical risks of feeling lonely

Life events such as retirement, loss of a spouse or friends or other loved ones, and age-related physical and mental decline can make it difficult for older adults to maintain social connectedness. As noted in a report posted by United Health Foundation  at, social roles and network structures change and shift in late adulthood, increasing the risk that older adults will become socially isolated. They may not benefit from the buffering effects of social support while experiencing stressful life events common to aging. Strong social networks have been shown to improve the management of chronic illness and physical and cognitive health.

While there are many definitions of social isolation and varying ways to measure it, essentially, social isolation is an absence of meaningful relationships. Social isolation differs from loneliness in that loneliness is the feeling of lacking meaningful social relationships, instead of the objective lack of social relationships. An individual can be socially isolated and not lonely, or feel lonely and not be socially isolated.

In the United States, social isolation affects around 25 percent of older adults ages 65 and older. It can complicate health care and negatively impact physical health and mental well-being. And it is associated with lower use of healthcare, increased risk of mortality, self-reported fair or poor health status, and other health outcomes such as dementia and coronary heart disease or stroke. Social isolation results in an estimated $6.7 billion in annual Medicare spending.

Who is affected?

Factors that influence social isolation among older adults include race and ethnicity, immigration status, level of English proficiency, sexual orientation and gender identity, meaningful social participation and support of family and community. Older adults at greater risk of experiencing social isolation include:

  • Those who are divorced, widowed, or separated, and those who have never been married.
  • Those who live alone, which is a well-documented risk factor for social isolation, although not all who live alone are isolated.
  • Those with a disability and who are homebound. A condition that limits daily activities can also restrict social functioning. Physical impairments that limit mobility can bring about social integration barriers, resulting in fewer social contacts and greater feelings of loneliness.
  • Those living in poverty. Economic constraints can present social activity barriers and are a risk factor for poor social integration.

What works?

Interventions to decrease social isolation among older adults are most successful when they get older adults involved, rather than simply providing services or training. Interventions to prevent and reduce social isolation include:

  • Technology-based interventions. Though not appropriate for all older adults, they have been used internationally to enhance communication and connectedness, particularly among those with geographical or mobility barriers.
  • Service by volunteers who act as intermediaries between older adults. It may help sustain short and long-term social connectedness.
  • Structural interventions that support the employment of older adults, which can promote inclusivity and help change the societal attitude towards older adults.
  • Medicare Advantage plans that provide flexible supplemental benefits, such as home delivery of meals and ride-sharing services from Uber and Lyft.
  • Expanded collaboration between transportation and public health at the community level, which may address social isolation by increasing mobility among older adults.

AARP points to the importance of senior and community centers in facilitating group interactions. They also offer resources on dealing with social isolation.

Studies have found that isolation and loneliness are worse for health than obesity, and prolonged isolation is comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Similarly, older adults who describe themselves as lonely face a 59 percent greater risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death, according to AARP Foundation.

COVID-19’s impact.

The pandemic poses a greater risk of social isolation among seniors, leaving them disconnected from communities where they may have sought support. According to a survey fielded AARP Foundation, 6 in 10 older adults report experiencing social isolation and understand it has negative consequences for physical and mental) health, but only 11 percent of adults look to medical professionals for help.

“UnitedHealth Group is committed to serving at-risk communities during the coronavirus pandemic, and seniors suffering from social isolation and food insecurity are especially vulnerable at this time,” said Dr. Rhonda Randall, executive vice president and chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare.

Launched in 1961, AARP Foundation serves vulnerable people age 50 and older, with a focus on tackling senior poverty through innovative solutions that help low-income older adults build economic opportunity and social connections.


Source: United Health Foundation