One out of five older adults are socially isolated from family or friends, increasing their risks for poor mental and physical health. These adults also have higher rates of mortality, a new study shows.
Researchers looked at several factors affecting social isolation from family and friends within a national sample of more than 1,300 older African-Americans, black Caribbeans, and whites. Study participants were 55 and older.
Overall, most elderly were connected to both family and friends (77 percent), while 11 percent were isolated from friends only, and 7 percent were isolated from family members only.
Physical And Mental Health Problems
Of concern, however, were the 5 percent of elderly who were socially isolated from both family and friends, which may place them at risk for physical and mental health problems, researchers say.
Men were more likely than women to be socially isolated. Women’s lifelong investments in family and friend networks, often through their social roles as caregivers to others, suggest that they may be less likely to experience social isolation as they age.
African-American, black Caribbean, and white older adults reported similar levels of social isolation from family and friends.
Further, older adults who live with family members may still report social isolation from friends, suggesting that these family members and friends have distinctive and complementary roles in terms of social isolation.
“In essence, our findings indicated that living arrangements themselves — alone or with others — were not indicative of social contact or engagement,”
lead author Linda Chatters, professor of social work and professor of public health at the University of Michigan, said.
Older adults with mobility impairments such as moving about in one’s home, standing for 30 minutes, or walking a long distance, were more likely to report being isolated from friends. In contrast, elderly who experienced impairments in self-care such as bathing and dressing were less likely to indicate being isolated from friends.
One explanation for these findings could be that mobility impairments lead to social isolation because they limit the ability to socialize with friends outside the home, the researchers say. In contrast, because self-care impairments reflect a higher level of physical frailty, friends may be more likely to make home visits to the elderly.
Further research is needed to understand better how different factors are associated with social isolation within diverse groups of older adults. For future work, the authors write,
“Priority tasks include identifying risk and protective factors for social isolation (i.e., objective and subjective) that are associated with specific demographic and health characteristics of older adults, the quality and frequency of social contacts with others, and the characteristics of elders’ living arrangements.”
Data collection for the study was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health, with supplemental support from the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the University of Michigan. Manuscript preparation was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging and the National Institute for General Medical Sciences.