Portrait of thoughtful senior woman
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Loneliness significantly increases serious illness and mortality risk in mid to later life, supporting public health initiatives to reduce it, according to the results of a new study from University of Michigan researchers.

The focus on cumulative loneliness brings a new contribution to the field of research in the area, according to senior author Lindsay Kobavashi, PhD, MSc, director of the Social Epidemiology of Global Aging Lab at U-M. The results were published Dec. 11 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Using data from 9,000 adults aged 50 or more years who took part in the US Health and Retirement Study from 1996 to 2004, the researchers found that participants who reported more periods of loneliness had significantly greater mortality risk compared with those who reported no or fewer periods of loneliness. 

In results that surprised researchers, the data showed 106 excess deaths when loneliness was reported one time, 202 excess deaths when loneliness was reported two times, and 288 excess deaths when loneliness was reported three or more times over the eight-year study period.

“Loneliness is not a static experience; it is dynamic. So the eight-year duration of our data on loneliness was a unique part of this study that allowed us to look into cumulative loneliness over time,” Kobayashi said in a statement. “The numbers surprised me. They strike me as very high, because loneliness is preventable.”

The U-M researchers concluded that their findings indicate that public health initiatives and policies to reduce loneliness among aging adults may hold promise for increasing population life expectancy.

The US Surgeon General and the World Health Organization declared loneliness a global health crisis earlier this year.

Senior living promotes socialization

Previous senior living industry efforts have touted the socialization-related benefits of the setting. Argentum has pointed to assisted living as a home- and community-based shared care model that has the lowest incidence of loneliness among long-term care settings, offering improved quality of life and better health outcomes for residents. 

A U-M National Poll on Health Aging released last spring found that older adults who lived alone reported higher rates of social isolation than those living with others.

The American Seniors Housing Association and ATI Advisory, in a 2022 report, found that senior living communities had improved the quality of life for residents during the COVID-19 pandemic through cohesive social environments and by encouraging residents to participate in social activities.

Before the pandemic, in 2021, a survey from Activated insights reported a potential decline in loneliness among older adults in assisted living and other congregate living settings.