A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health found that the frequency of physician visits correlated with chronic loneliness in the elderly population. These findings are suggestive that creating interventions for elderly loneliness may significantly reduce physician visits and, correspondingly, health care costs. That begs the question of why. Is it that loneliness is detrimental to one’s health? Is it that if someone is lonely “reasons” to visit the physician may be influenced simply by to sheer longing for human contact? Perhaps a combination of the two? Or perhaps something else entirely?
The study examined senior citizens living in the general community and not those in a retirement community. The study relied on data collected in 2008 and 2012 by the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, a national survey of Americans that were over the age of 50. In order to assess loneliness, participants completed a survey examining their feelings regarding lack of companionship and social/emotional isolation. To meet the criteria for “chronic loneliness,” participants had to be identified as lonely in both years of the study (2008 and 2012, respectively). The researchers reviewed responses from 3,530 of adults over the age of 60 that lived in the general community. The results are suggestive that chronic loneliness was significantly associated with the number of visits to the physician, although it did not appear to correlate with hospitalizations.
These findings may implicate that the actual loneliness (as opposed to the detrimental impact of loneliness on health) plays a role, as the participants may have made an appointment with their physician because it is usually someone that they have known for years–and with whom they have built a relationship–therefore providing an element of sought after socialization. (As opposed to going to a hospital in which one typically does not know the staff there or which doctor they will be assigned). That is not to proclaim that the members of the elderly population malinger their symptoms in order to have an excuse to socialize with their physician; rather, it may be a confluence of variables, including the possibility of subconsciously generating reasons to visit a physician in order to alleviate loneliness. What do you make of these findings? Do you have any theories to explain it? Finally, hopefully we are spurred to facilitate meeting needs and helping a population to improve quality of life – can you think of any interventions to target loneliness in the elderly population?
Faisal Roberts, M.A.
WKPIC Predoctoral Intern
Nauert, R. (2015). Loneliness Drives Elders to Physician Offices. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 3, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2015/04/03/loneliness-drives-elders-to-physician-offices/83119.html