Lack of social interaction or camaraderie is more common among people with health problems, but neighbors, healthy habits, and technology can help
Staying close to your home and avoiding crowded places can help older adults reduce their risk of COVID-19. However, a new national survey suggests that there is a cost to this, especially for people with health problems.
As of June this year, 56% of people over 50 said they sometimes or often feel isolated from others – more than twice as many as 27% who felt this way in a similar survey in 2018. Almost half of those polled as of June of this year also said they felt more isolated than they did just before the pandemic in the United States, and a third said they had less camaraderie than before.
Social contacts also suffered as a result. 46% of older adults said they rarely interacted with friends, neighbors, or family members outside of their household – once a week or less – compared to 28% who said so in 2018.
The new results come from the National Healthy Aging Survey conducted for the University of Michigan Institute of Health Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center. In both the 2020 and 2018 loneliness surveys, a national sample of more than 2,000 adults aged 50 to 80 was used.
The survey also shows some bright spots. For example, 46% of older adults who reported interacting with people in their neighborhood at least once a week were less likely to report experiencing forms of loneliness. The technology also helped many people over 50 to connect with others, including 59% who said they used social media at least once a week and 31% who used video chat at least once a week.
And many older adults reported acting healthy despite the pandemic – including 75% who reported being outdoors or interacting with nature and 62% who reported exercising several times a week. But those who experienced loneliness were less inclined to engage in these healthy behaviors.
"As the pandemic continues, it will be important to pay attention to how well we as a society support the social and emotional needs of older adults," says John Piette, Ph.D., a professor at the UM School of Public Health who worked with the Survey team. "The interface between loneliness and health remains to be explored a lot, but even as we gather new evidence, we can all take the time to safely reach out to older neighbors, friends and relatives to avoid the coronavirus."
"The change we're seeing in these interventions in less than two years is truly remarkable," says Preeti Malani, M.D., professor at U-M Medical School who leads the survey and is trained in geriatrics and infectious diseases. "Using technology to bridge this gap and the importance of maintaining healthy routines like exercise, sleep, eating a balanced diet, and going outside will no doubt continue to be important in the months ahead."
Interactions with health and lifestyle
Malani notes that 80% of respondents in June said they were eating healthy and 81% said they got enough sleep – much like the 2018 survey.
The survey also found that half of those who live alone and just over half (52%) of those who are unemployed or disabled experienced a lack of camaraderie compared to 39% of those who work with others or work in retirement.
Similarly, just over half of those who said their physical health was fair or bad, and two-thirds of those who said the same about their mental health, said they lacked compassion. Almost three quarters of those who said their mental health was fair or bad felt isolated, compared with 55% of those who reported better mental health.
Using technology to connect seems like a double-edged sword, with those who use social media and video chat more likely to say they feel isolated.
As the pandemic continues and older adults try to avoid coronavirus infection and the undue risk to their health, AARP is offering resources, including tips for older adults to avoid feeling isolated despite the pandemic. The AARP Foundation's Connect2Affect website includes a tool that older adults can use to assess their level of isolation and connect them to resources and opportunities in their area.
"Previous studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative impact on health and well-being – as does smoking 15 cigarettes a day," said Alison Bryant, Ph.D., senior vice president of research at AARP. "It is not surprising that older adults have reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, especially those living alone. We must continue to find ways to connect and connect with one another during this public health crisis."
The National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report in February 2020 on the need for the health system to help prevent, detect and combat loneliness in people over 50.
The results of the National Healthy Aging Survey are based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,074 adults aged 50 to 80 who answered a variety of questions online. The IHPI team wrote questions, interpreted and compiled data. Respondents who did not have it were given laptops and internet access.
University of Michigan