SINGAPORE — Loneliness can have a mental and physical effect on anyone, but its impact on older adults is well documented. Previous studies have revealed that loneliness can not only lead to mental health issues, it may even cause the onset of diseases such as dementia. Now, a new study finds feeling lonely later during old age may literally take years off someone’s life.
The report from Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore reveals adults over the age of 60 who say they sometimes or always feel lonely die up to five years sooner than seniors who don’t feel lonely.
“We found that lonely older adults can expect to live a shorter life than their peers who don’t perceive themselves as lonely,” says the study’s lead author, Assistant Professor Rahul Malhotra, in a media release. “Furthermore, they pay a penalty for their shorter life by forfeiting potential years of good health.”
“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,” adds Associate Professor Angelique Chan, Executive Director of Duke-NUS’ Center for Aging Research and Education.
Study authors add the results are timely due to the stay-at-home orders and social distancing mandates keeping many seniors inside during the coronavirus pandemic.
Loneliness lowers someone’s life expectations
The study finds people at age 60 who say they’re lonely some or all of the time have a life expectancy that’s three to five years shorter than their peers. For someone lonely at age 70, their life expectancy drops by three to four years. At age 80, loneliness decreases life expectancy by two to three years.
The study also reveals seniors who feel lonely see drops in two other measures of their health expectancy for the remainder of their lives. Those include the years left they believe they’ll be in good health and the years left they believe they’ll be able to do their daily activities without limitations.
Just like overall life expectancy, adults at 60, 70, and 80 saw these measures drop by the same number of years if they perceive themselves to be lonely at least some of the time.
Does culture play a role in loneliness?
Researchers say the findings are especially relevant in countries like Singapore, which they describe as having a “collectivistic” culture and a rapidly aging population. Since the interconnectedness between people is more important here, study authors say, being lonely has a more detrimental effect than in countries that are more “individualistic.”
Moreover, a 2016 report — the Transitions in Health, Employment, Social Engagement, and Intergenerational Transfers in Singapore (THE SIGNS) study — discovered 34 percent of older Singapore citizens consider themselves lonely. This percentage increased to 40 percent among those 80 and older.
“Building on THE SIGNS study, our recent findings highlight the population health impact of loneliness, and the importance of identifying and managing it among older adults,” says Malhotra. “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,” concludes Chan. “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.”
The study appears in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.