Pain & Loneliness: Osteoarthritis Linked To Social Isolation Among Seniors

NEW YORK — Social isolation is, unfortunately, a common occurrence among the elderly. While this phenomenon can be traced back to a number of contributing factors, the simple fact that its harder for many older people to move around plays a significant role in this relationship. With this in mind, researchers from the American Geriatrics Society say there may be a link between osteoarthritis, a condition that causes joint pain, and social isolation.

Many people who suffer from arthritis also deal with additional issues that may put them at a greater risk of becoming socially isolated. Examples of such issues include anxiety and depression, fear of moving around due to arthritis pain, physical inactivity, and a lack of ability to properly care for themselves.

Furthermore, arthritis is incredibly common; 30% of adults over the age of 65 deal with some form of arthritis, with leg joints being a commonly affected body part. However, there hasn’t been all that much research performed on the connection between arthritis and isolation.

So, in an effort to learn more about this possible connection, as well as arthritis’ overall contribution to global social isolation, data was collected from a European research project that consisted of 2,942 seniors living in six different European countries (United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands). From that group, this study looked specifically at 1,967 people all around the age of 73.

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The research team wanted to determine if each adult was socially isolated both at the beginning of the study as well as 12-18 months later on. To achieve this, each adult filled out questionnaires asking about how often they saw and connected with family and friends. Each participant was also asked about any volunteer activity or social groups they may be involved in.

Half of the surveyed participants were women, and nearly 30% had arthritis. Judging off of the initial questionnaire results, 20% of the participants were isolated at the beginning of the study.

Participants that weren’t socially isolated were generally younger, had higher incomes and more education. Also, those who were staying social were generally in better health, more attractive, experienced less daily pain, and had faster walking times.

Among the 1,585 participants who were not classified as socially isolated at the beginning of the study, 13% ended up becoming isolated by the time of the second survey some 12-18 months later. That group reported that their arthritis had worsened in between survey periods; they were in more pain, couldn’t walk as easily, had developed depression, and some were experiencing problems thinking and formulating decisions.

The study’s authors believe their findings indicate that osteoarthritis increases one’s risk of social isolation. Besides arthritis, problems with thinking and decisions, and slower walking times, were also listed as possible developments likely to result in social isolation.

Researchers recommend that older adults suffering from arthritis should do the best they can to stay moving and get involved in social activities. Specifically, they suggest looking into local senior centers that usually feature activities specially designed for people dealing with mobility issues.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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