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Few friends combined with loneliness linked to poor mental and physical health for elderly
Date:3/18/2009

Although not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks, research at the University of Chicago suggests. Older people who are able to adjust to being alone don't have the same health problems.

The study is the first to examine the relationships between health and two different types of isolation. Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need.

"Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support," said study co-author Linda Waite, the Lucy Flower Professor in Sociology at the University of Chicago and a leading expert on aging.

However, the researchers found a different relationship between social isolation and mental health. "The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support," Waite explained.

Older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness. The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people's willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, Waite explained.

Among the study's findings:

  • The most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated.

  • Older adults who feel least isolated are five times as likely to report very good or excellent health as those
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Contact: William Harms
w-harms@uchicago.edu
773-702-8356
University of Chicago
Source:Eurekalert

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