Everyone requires social connections in order to survive and thrive. However, as people get older, they tend to spend more time alone. Being alone may make older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, both of which can have a negative impact on their health and well-being. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to an increased risk of health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline, according to research.
A new Yale University study finds that socially isolated older adults who enter intensive care units (ICUs) are more likely to die and have a higher risk of disability after discharge than those who are more connected to family and friends.
According to Dr. Lauren E. Ferrante, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the paper, the study “illustrates the need for hospitals to identify older patients who lack social networks and connect them with programs designed to provide isolated individuals support.”
Patients over the age of 65 are more likely to experience functional issues such as difficulty dressing or walking after being discharged from a hospitalization that included an ICU stay. According to the findings, more than one-third of those with few social connections die within three years of discharge, a rate three to five times higher than the general older adult population.
Socially isolated older adults are more likely to die when admitted to ICU or face an increased risk of disability once discharged than those who have social support.
“Our research focuses on understanding and improving the functional recovery of older adults who survive the intensive care unit,” said Ferrante, a critical care physician at Yale-New Haven Hospital. “Previous research has shown that older adults value functional independence even more than staying alive.”
This mental health issue has been linked to poor physical health. A well-known review of research discovered that loneliness (the feeling of being alone), social isolation, and living alone were risk factors for early mortality, with an increased risk of death ranging from 26% to 32%.
Ferrante and the Yale team examined data from patients admitted to intensive care units between 2011 and 2018 as part of the National Health and Aging Trends Study, in collaboration with former colleague Jason Falvey, now a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Being alone may make older adults more vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation, both of which can have a negative impact on their health and well-being. Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to an increased risk of health problems such as heart disease, depression, and cognitive decline, according to research.
Participants were asked questions about their social interactions, such as whether they discuss important issues with family or friends, visit with family or friends, and attend social events or church. Social isolation was graded on a scale of 0 to 6.
The researchers discovered that each increase in social isolation scores was associated with an increased risk of functional disability and death. In the year following an ICU admission, the most socially isolated older adults had a 50% higher burden of functional disability and a 119 percent higher risk of death.
She suggested that after older patients are discharged, hospital staff ensure they receive weekly phone calls from volunteers or arrange transportation to appointments. In addition, social workers can assist the elderly in enrolling in programs that promote social engagement.
“Hospitalization may be our only chance of identifying socially isolated people,” Ferrante said. “We are all aware of the patient’s medical details in the hospital, but we need to be more aware of the patient’s social situation as well.”
Disability and death are common among critically ill older adults. Socially isolated older adults may be more vulnerable to negative outcomes for a variety of reasons, including fewer supports to access services needed for optimal recovery; however, it is unknown whether social isolation is associated with post-intensive care unit (ICU) disability and mortality.
Social isolation can occur in older adults who live alone or have no close friends or family. Older adults who are socially isolated are more likely to be victims of elder abuse. While older adults who are socially isolated may experience loneliness, the two experiences are not the same.
Chronic social isolation, according to research, increases the risk of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, as well as chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. It also increases the risk of dementia in the elderly.