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Two newly published studies on loneliness take different approaches to identifying how loneliness affects older adults, but both draw similar conclusions that its negative effects include both mental and physical health.

One study of 15,500 older adult participants in the Chinese Longitudinal Healthy Longevity Survey aimed to identify associations between loneliness and life expectancy. The other study used 18 life story interviews with older adults attending a mental health service in Dublin to look at personal experiences with loneliness across a lifetime.

In the study in China, published June 4 in BMC Public Health, researchers found that loneliness has varied effects on health across different measurement indicators and gender. Although lonely older adults may show high levels of functional autonomy in activities of daily living, their subjective assessment of their health may reduce their life expectancy as well as healthy life expectancy, the investigators said.

Experiences of loneliness, they found, can create heightened psychological distress and emotional isolation, leading to lower self-rated health. 

Compared with men, women in the lonely group had lower healthy life expectancy / life expectancy, indicating poorer quality of life. Women’s health, the researchers said, may be more susceptible to the negative effects of loneliness due to longer life expectancy, increased risk of widowhood and greater susceptibility to adverse health outcomes.

Researchers concluded that it is critical to focus on the effects of loneliness on the subjective health of older adults, particularly in the quality of life for females, with particular attention to its impact on physical functioning.

A life course approach to loneliness

In the study in Ireland, an early version of which was published May 31, investigators wanted to understand the role of personal experiences of loneliness across a lifetime. 

The study was conducted in 2021 at a day hospital and community service providing mental health services for older adults with depression, anxiety and psychosis. The researchers used life history interviews with older adults receiving mental health services, identifying three distinct types of loneliness.

The first group was chronically lonely from childhood. Members of this group experienced dysfunctional or interrupted parental bonding or attachment, difficulties with close friendships throughout life, alcohol as a coping mechanism, and a consistent inability to connect with others authentically. 

Members of the second group became chronically lonely after failing to fully recover from a specific change in midlife. For the third group, loneliness was situational/transitional, with natural periods of loneliness around bereavement and loss, but they had the ability to recover, adapt or cope. 

“The importance of our social health needs to be taken seriously by society, and we need to identify interventions which prevent situational loneliness becoming chronic for those with smaller networks, as well as to prevent the seeding of chronic life course loneliness in childhood,” the researchers concluded. 

The life course approach, which researchers said should be a priority for public health, provided important information to inform both general loneliness services and policy but also specialized mental health services and training. 

The recently introduced Social Engagement and Network Initiatives for Older Relief (SENIOR) Act in the United States would add loneliness to the definition of disease prevention and health promotion services under the Older Americans Act. It also would require a federal report on the effects of loneliness on older adults.