Health Effects of Social Isolation and Loneliness

By Steve Abate, Executive Vice President, Healthcare Division of Connect America | July 1, 2020

Loneliness, including feelings of social isolation and lack of companionship, is a serious issue for seniors. Today, one in three older adults report that they are lonely, according to a recent Healthy Aging poll. It’s not just a matter of well-being—loneliness can also have a negative effect on many facets of overall health. In fact, studies suggest that social isolation is as bad for our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Research shows that chronic loneliness can impact memory, physical well-being, mental health, and life expectancy in older adults. It’s also related to a higher risk of chronic health conditions, such as hypertension, heart disease, anxiety, depression, obesity, a compromised immune system, and Alzheimer’s disease.

One study found that socially isolated men who were unmarried, had fewer than six friends or relatives, and were not tied to any religious or social organizations had a 90 percent increased risk of a fatal cardiovascular event. They also had double the risk of death from an accident or suicide, and double the risk of having a non-fatal stroke. Among seniors who live by themselves, 60 percent report feeling a lack of companionship and 41 percent felt socially isolated.

Loneliness in older adults comes at a monetary cost as well. Among Medicare beneficiaries, social isolation is the cause of an estimated $6.7 billion in additional healthcare costs each year. This higher spending is driven by increased hospitalization and institutionalization.

Healthy Habits Can Help

There is a connection between lifestyle behaviors and loneliness. Those who regularly eat healthy, exercise, and get the proper rest are less likely to report feelings of isolation or lack of companionship than those who practice the same healthy habits twice a week or less.

There is also a link between tobacco use and feelings of isolation. People who smoke or use tobacco are more likely to feel lonely or isolated than those who don’t.

The COVID-19 Connection

With the onset of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders associated with the novel coronavirus, many older adults have lost their usual means to connect with support networks and health and social service providers.

The result is something of a “social recession”—a drastic reduction in social contact that’s particularly hard on the populations that are most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness: older adults and people with pre-existing health conditions.

Many of the traditional strategies for engaging older adults have become obsolete in the “new normal”. Group meal sites, exercise and social activities, in-person health interactions, and volunteer and employment commitments are just some of the social engagement activities that have been suspended due to coronavirus closures.

As COVID-19 physical distancing continues, so does the risk of social isolation, loneliness, and related health impacts for seniors. Even as social activities start to resume in some areas of the country, older adults will need to take careful measures to stay healthy—and that means avoiding large groups and continuing to stay home whenever possible.

Bridging the Gap with Technology

In these unprecedented times, we’re presented with a unique opportunity to leverage technology and telehealth solutions to fill the gaps that have been created by physical distancing measures, and help older adults combat the negative health effects of loneliness.

Through telehealth services such as remote patient monitoring (RPM), seniors are able to receive around-the-clock vital sign and medication monitoring—essentially creating a connection to caregivers from the safety of their own home. This level of precise, personalized care brings comfort and peace of mind to seniors and those with chronic health conditions and decreases feelings of isolation

Hospitals across the nation have adopted new means of connecting with patients during the coronavirus pandemic, including text-based outreach, online health and wellness programs, and virtual visits for patients identified at-risk for care that may have been delayed, or whose primary care physician is concerned about their well-being. Response has been positive, and seniors have noted how easy it is to stay in close touch.

RPM and telemedicine have become a necessity during the coronavirus pandemic. Because of their accessibility and potential to help those who are most vulnerable to social isolation and loneliness, they will remain essential tools for managing the physical and emotional health of older adults as the pandemic continues to evolve.

Patients who have used RPM report better access to care, improved quality of care, increased engagement rates, and a higher level of satisfaction. Beyond the important benefits of patient peace of mind and engagement, RPM provides patients with the comfort that someone is watching out for their health and well-being on a daily basis—assuring them that they are not alone.

Steve Abate is the Executive Vice President of the Healthcare Division of Connect America. Headquartered in Bala Cynwyd, PA with regional offices nationwide, Connect America offers a growing portfolio of leading medical alert systems, remote patient monitoring, and medication management solutions. With products and services designed to improve patient outcomes and contain the rising costs of healthcare, Connect America has been partnering with Medicare Advantage, Area Agencies on Aging, managed care organizations, home care, hospitals and many other healthcare organizations to deliver cutting-edge healthcare technologies to patients and individuals nationally for more than 35 years.