"All the lonely people": The impact of loneliness in old age on life and health expectancy

July 11, 2021

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"All the lonely people": The impact of loneliness in old age on life and health expectancy

In 1966, The Beatles cemented the plight of lonely older people in the popular imagination with the iconic “Eleanor Rigby,” a song that turned pop music on its head when it stayed at number one on the British charts for four weeks. Now, in new research, the impact of loneliness in old age on life and health expectancy has been categorically quantified for the first time in a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

What the researchers say: “We found that lonely older adults can expect to live a shorter life than their peers who don't perceive themselves as lonely,” summarized the study's lead author. “Furthermore, they pay a penalty for their shorter life by forfeiting potential years of good health.”

Another senior author of the study, noted, “Besides being the year associated with the coronavirus disease, 2019 was also when the number of adults aged over 30 made up half the total global population for the first time in recorded history, marking the start of an increasingly ageing world. In consequence, loneliness among seniors has become an issue of social and public health concern.”

“This study is timely because stay-at-home and physical distancing measures instituted since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have only intensified concern for the mental and physical well-being of older persons,” the researchers added.

The study findings show that people aged 60, who perceive themselves to be sometimes lonely or mostly lonely, can expect to live three to five years less, on average, compared to peers who perceive themselves as never lonely. Similarly, at ages 70 and 80, lonely older persons can, on average, expect to live three to four and two to three years less, respectively, compared to non-lonely peers.

Using the same dataset, the researchers found that the perception of loneliness has a similar impact on two types of health expectancy—remaining years of life lived in a self-rated state of good health as well as remaining years of life lived without being limited when going about “activities of daily living.” Such activities include routines like bathing and dressing, rising from or settling into a bed or chair, and preparing meals.

At age 60, sometimes lonely or mostly lonely seniors can expect to spend three to five fewer years of their remaining life, on average, without limitations in daily living activities, compared to never-lonely peers. At age 70, their active life expectancy goes down to two to four fewer years, on average. At age 80, it is at one to three fewer years, on average.

In 2016 and 2017, researchers conducted a study to look into factors influencing health, well-being, and activity and productivity levels in older people. Nationally representative data, collected from more than 2,000 older citizens and permanent residents, showed that a third (34 per cent) perceived themselves to be lonely. This proportion increased with age, from 32 per cent among those aged 60-69 years, to 40 per cent among those aged 80 and above.

More males (37 per cent) were lonely, relative to females (31 per cent). Across education levels, the proportion of lonely older people was lowest (33 per cent) among those with no formal education, and highest (38 per cent) among those with higher-than-tertiary education. This proportion was nearly 10 per cent higher among seniors who lived alone (43 per cent) compared to those who did not live alone (33 per cent).

“Building on those studies, our recent findings highlight the population health impact of loneliness, and the importance of identifying and managing it among older adults,” said the lead author. “This is part of a series of studies to assess the impact of important health and social constructs, like loneliness, sensory impairments, obesity, gender and education, on life and health expectancy among older adults.”

“With older persons at potentially greater risk of loneliness as a result of pandemic control measures, there has been increasing policy interest in loneliness around the world,” he added. “In 2018, the UK launched a national strategy for tackling loneliness and, in 2021, Japan appointed a 'Minister of Loneliness'. We hope this study helps galvanize more policies to tackle loneliness among older persons.”

So, what? This study is interesting, even if their findings—except the one relating loneliness to higher educational attainment—are not new.

It’s been known for some time that men tend to be more lonely than women and less able to make social contacts outside of work. Thus, when work ends, they are in danger of feeling isolated—even if they are married.

We need to rethink work so that the transition from “employed” to “retired” is not so traumatic. This is something that Tribe member Charles in the UK is working on and an area in which we will be collaborating. It is also a focus of our work with the Longevity project which Alicia and I are the culture platform leaders on.

Interesting research was published a few years ago which suggested that just 48 hours of perceptual isolation from other people is enough to cause the brain to begin the process of dying. Loneliness—at any age—has been associated with the eventual onset of dementia. One of the reasons that dementia is virtually unknown among hunter-gatherers is that they never experience isolation.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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