March 4, 2019 -- One in three older adults say they lack companionship, a new poll has found, and the feeling is more likely in people with health problems.
The poll of 2,000 adults ages 50 to 80 also found that one in four people surveyed say they feel isolated, says Erica Solway, PhD, a social science researcher at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who helped direct the survey.
"Feeling lonely is an extremely common experience for people," she says. It seems to hit hardest in older adults who have health issues, but she is not sure if the health issues trigger the isolation or vice versa. "It's hard to know which way it goes," she says.
Who Is Lonely?
The “Loneliness and Health” poll is part of the university’s National Poll on Healthy Aging. Among its other findings:
- 1 in 3 adults reported feeling a lack of companionship, with 8% reporting the feeling often.
- 1 in 4 reported feeling isolated from others, 5% of them feeling that way often during the past year.
- Women were more likely to report a lack of companionship, with 36% of them reporting it, compared with 31% of men.
- Living alone was linked with feeling lonely. Sixty percent of people living solo said they felt a lack of companionship, and 41% felt isolated.
Health problems played a role, too. Twenty-six percent of adults who said they felt a lack of companionship said they were in fair to poor physical health. Only 13% of people who rarely lacked companionship rated their health that way.
Adults with hearing problems and mental health issues reported more feelings of isolation and loneliness. Other things linked to a lack of companionship include a household income of less than $60,000 a year and having children at home.
More than a quarter of the respondents said they only had social contact once weekly, or less, with family members they don't live with, friends, and neighbors.
Loneliness and Health
The findings are largely consistent with other recent research, and health officials have been sounding the alarm about the negative health effects of loneliness.
"We, too, found that loneliness was common across the adult lifespan and was associated with poor physical, cognitive, and mental health," says Dilip Jeste, MD, a senior associate dean for healthy aging and senior care at the University of California San Diego.
Another study found that loneliness also raises the risk of premature death among people of all ages.
While loneliness happens throughout life, ''loneliness and lack of companionship is different in older people [than younger]," says David Reuben, MD, director of geriatrics at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. "In older people, it is much more associated with loss. In teens, it is much more intrinsic. They are trying to get their lives together, their act together."
Besides feeling lonely when longtime friends or partners pass away, older adults may feel lonely when they retire, says Reuben, who’s also the Archstone Foundation chair and professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine.
"Some people do fine with retirement, but many people are identified with their work," he says. He recalls a patient who retired at 86, and ''he was not the same guy. He had no place to go."
To combat loneliness, "social connections and healthy behaviors can help," Solway says. "Among those who hardly ever feel a lack of companionship, 85% said they ate a healthy diet every day or several times a week," she says. Only 71% of people who reported a lack of companionship did.
''For some people, just knowing they are not alone in feeling lonely may encourage them to reach out to others," Solway says.
Jeste, who’s also a distinguished professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at UCSD, finds that people often feel lonely when their social activities don't measure up to their expectations. If so, he says, "consider why you felt that the social engagement in those situations was far less than what you would have liked to have." You can then choose activities that may better meet your goals. Or you may decide to lessen your need for social interactions and instead read or watch a movie to combat feelings of isolation.
Fixing loneliness isn't as simple as telling an isolated older adult to join a senior center, Reuben says.
"Some people just aren't that type," he says. Boosting the social connections can ease loneliness, but the activity has to fit with a person's personality.