Over the last two-plus years, the pandemic has shown all of us that staying connected to others is critical to maintaining our mental and physical health. But recent academic work indicates that for older adults, prolonged social isolation could be a matter of life and death.
In a 2021 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, Yale researchers looked at 997 people over the age of 65 who took part in the National Health and Aging Trends survey between 2011 and 2018. More specifically, they looked for subjects who had stayed in the hospital with a critical illness, and they followed their trajectory for the following year after discharge. Participants answered questions about their social interactions in that year, such as how often they talked to family members and friends and if they regularly attended social events.
The results showed just how dire social isolation can be for older adults: People who were less connected to peers and loved ones had a 50 percent higher likelihood of functional disability a year after their hospital stay, and even more pronounced, they had a 119 percent greater risk of death.
While their research focused on older adults after a hospital visit, scientists believe their work is applicable to anyone. However, they acknowledge that hospitalized populations typically face additional social isolation due to age, mobility, and other issues, as compared to the general population. “Hospitalization may be our only chance of identifying people who are socially isolated,” explained senior study author and physician Lauren E. Ferrante, MD. “In the hospital, we are all aware of the patient’s medical details, but we need to be more aware of the patient’s social situation as well.”
If all of that wasn’t enough to make you want to join a book club, go to coffee with a friend, or reach out to an aging relative who may need a visit, another recent study showed that people who are good listeners are less likely to experience cognitive decline. All the more reason to socialize!