Fact Sheet: Loneliness and Older Adults

April 23, 2018

The UnLonely Project promotes individual and community connections through the arts. This fact sheet summarizes research on how loneliness affects older adults.

Social isolation and loneliness are public health issues that affect more than one-third of adults, with seniors most at risk for depression, substance abuse, and suicide triggered by feelings of isolation. Health risks associated with loneliness and social isolation are comparable to the dangers of smoking and obesity, increasing mortality risk by up to 30%. Given the links between loneliness and health status, there is a need for increased awareness among both the public and healthcare providers that loneliness is a condition that, like chronic pain, can afflict almost anyone, according to a 2015 study.

  • Loneliness is a significant predictor of poor health. In a 2010 AARP Research survey of adults age 45 and older, among respondents who rated their health as “excellent,” only 25% were likely to be lonely, compared to 55% for those who rated their health as “poor.”
  • Loneliness is a common source of distress, suffering, and impaired quality of life for adults older than 60, and is a predictor of functional decline and death, according to a 2012 study.
  • Some 19% of older adults report feeling lonely fairly frequently, according to a study on social connectedness based on data from the National Social Life Health and Aging Project. Relative to others, lonely adults tend to have lower incomes; are less likely to be married; live alone; and have poorer self-rated health, more physical limitations in carrying out daily activities, and fewer friends. They also socialize, volunteer, and participate in organized groups less frequently.
  • According to an AARP initiative, causes of social isolation include poor physical and mental health, poorly designed communities, and major life events such as loss of friends or a partner. Risk factors include lack of transportation, mobility impairment, untreated hearing loss, and limited opportunity to engage with others.
  • Health outcomes in older adults may be improved by promoting social engagement and helping seniors maintain interpersonal relationships, according to a 2012 study.
  • Many older adults suffer from frequent feelings of loneliness, but others are relatively unscathed by loneliness, according to a 2017 study.  Factors that combat loneliness are a support network of friends and family and improving physical problems that limit independence and the ability to get out and about.

Selected reading:

For more information: artandhealing.org/unlonely-overview/

The Foundation for Art & Healing