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Brett Arends’s ROI: Lonely seniors may die 5 years early

How often do you feel you lack companionship?

How often do you feel left out?

How often do you feel isolated from others?

These are the three key questions to ask others (or yourself) if you’re worried about how lonely they feel, researchers say. The answers you get may be way more important than many realized.

Loneliness isn’t just a mental-health challenge—it’s also a physical health challenge. It can wipe years off our lives, according to new research. And in the wake of a world-wide pandemic and lockdown that has left hundreds of millions of people more isolated for long periods of time, that may be a crisis that keeps on taking for years to come.

New data come courtesy of the latest issue of the Journal of the American Geriatric Society. A team of scientific researchers from four countries studied thousands of senior citizens (in Singapore). This included multiple interviews over six years, where they asked them the questions above and graded the answers (more on that below).

They found that those experiencing loneliness could expect to die about 5 ½ years earlier than those who didn’t. Yes, really. That’s based on death rates and progressive health and activity declines among the living, and that’s after accounting for other facts. Worse still, the lost years were generally good, healthy ones. In other words lonely senior citizens went into decline earlier, as well as dying earlier. “Consequently they spent 19.8% of their remaining life with unhealthy [self-rated health] versus 13.6% for those never lonely,” the researchers write.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore, the University of Rajshahi in Bangladesh, Nihon University in Tokyo, Japan, and Academia Sinica in Taiwan.

Loneliness is not the same as social isolation. It’s subjective, a matter of feeling.

So how did they convert the answers to those questions into data? They offered respondents a choice of 5 answers to each one: “Never, rarely, occasionally, fairly often, and always.” Each answer was given a number, from 0 for “never” to 4 for “always.”

Then they added up the three scores. Any total of 4 or more is grounds for concern, the researchers say.

OK, so one may be reasonably skeptical about the details. Even though it was a comprehensive study conducted over six years, it’s still only one study, in one population. How much loneliness will really wipe how many months or years off the life of the “average” person, let alone you or someone you know? Naturally we don’t really know. But it’s hard to challenge the direction of the analysis. Too much loneliness can kill.

Maybe we didn’t even need a study to know that.

There are two age groups in society most at risk, according to one study. The first is the age group 15 to 24. The second is the over-80s. Younger senior citizens are no more at risk than the rest of the population. (This shouldn’t be a surprise, as they are more likely to be physically active and mobile and in reasonable health, and to have a spouse who is the same.) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19517025/

Sobering thought? The U.S. Census says the number of Americans over 85 is going to rise by a third this decade to 5.6 million, and will double over the next 20 years to nearly 9 million.

It’s reasonable to ask about what we, as a society can do about this. Caring for the very elderly may be among the biggest challenges we face. But the primary role will surely fall on family members to keep in active touch with very elderly relatives.

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