Experiences of loneliness and social isolation can lead to increased health care use among older adults, according to new research from the University of Georgia College of Public Health.
The study, published online in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the frequency of physician visits was particularly influenced by chronic loneliness — and suggests that the identification and targeting of interventions for lonely elders may significantly decrease physician visits and health care costs.
“Logically, it makes sense that people who are in poorer health because of loneliness would use health care more,” said study co-author Dr. Kerstin Gerst Emerson, an assistant professor of health policy and management. “But we wondered, could people also be visiting their doctor or making those extra appointments because they were lonely?”
To answer this question, Dr. Emerson and co-author Dr. Jayani Jayawardhana, also an assistant professor in health policy and management, looked at how loneliness impacted the number of physician visits and hospitalizations reported by senior adults living among the general population and not in a retirement community. Their analysis relied on data from the 2008 and 2012 University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a national survey of Americans over the age of 50.
Drs. Emerson and Jayawardhana reviewed responses from 3,530 community-dwelling adults aged 60 and older, comparing their loneliness scores with their self-reported hospital stays and physician visits.
The researchers found that while loneliness experienced at only one time point did not predict health care use, chronic loneliness — being lonely in both 2008 and 2012 — was significantly associated with an increased number of doctor visits. Although Drs. Emerson and Jayawardhana had hypothesized that chronic loneliness would impact both physician visits and hospitalizations, only physician visits were significant in their sample of older adults.