Should Physicians Measure Loneliness as a Vital Sign?

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Patients older than 60 don’t always visit the doctor frequently because of illness alone. Elderly patients who suffer from chronic loneliness attend significantly more medical appointments than those who report a more secure sense of companionship, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. These findings suggest that chronic loneliness is a significant public health concern among elders.

For the study, researchers from the University of Georgia College of Public Health used data from the 2008 and 2012 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. To gauge loneliness, the surveys asked respondents how often they felt they lacked companionship, how often they felt left out, and how often they felt isolated from others — ‘often,’ ‘sometimes,’ or ‘hardly ever.’ Those with a high ‘loneliness index’ both years were considered to be chronically lonely, explained UGA Today.

More than half (53{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5}) of the study respondents reported being lonely, a figure that rose to 57{06cf2b9696b159f874511d23dbc893eb1ac83014175ed30550cfff22781411e5} four years later. What’s more, lonely individuals reported more difficulty with activities of daily living as well as symptoms of depression. They were also less likely to describe their health as good, very good, or excellent.

“Loneliness is something that is easily preventable and with little cost compared to other chronic illnesses,” co-author Jayani Jayawardhana told UGA Today. “With interventions as simple as a phone call, home visit, or community program, you can avoid unnecessary healthcare utilization and additional expenditures that ultimately cost all of us as a society.”