Social isolation takes a heavy toll on people’s health, especially senior adults. In the USA, the cost of loneliness of seniors aged 65 or older costs the government nearly $7 billion in additional health care costs per year.
People of any age can be socially isolated, of course, but the risk of losing contact with friends, family, and community members becomes more significant as a person ages. Social networks can shrink after losses and life changes. Retirement, the death of friends, and disabilities can make social interactions more difficult.
In a survey sponsored by AARP and Stanford University, the good news was that most people surveyed did have strong social networks. A full 86% described themselves as well-connected, meaning frequent contacts—in-person or otherwise—with their children, friends, and family.
The 14% who described themselves as isolated, however, had far more health problems. They suffered more frequently from depression, had more trouble performing necessary daily activities like bathing or grooming, and were more likely to have at least five chronic health problems. They were more likely than their socially active peers to be male, white, urban, and poor.
On average, Medicare spent an additional $134 per month, or $1,608 per year, on each of these socially isolated individuals. Extrapolated to the general elder population, that’s an additional $6.7 billion per year in spending. Isolation costs Medicare more each year than arthritis, and just a bit less than high blood pressure.
When these lonelier seniors are admitted to the hospital, they stay longer and need more expensive treatments. They also spend more time in skilled nursing facilities—a result, perhaps, of not having the support necessary to rehabilitate at home.
They are also harder to follow over the long term. Fewer than 25% of well-connected patients died within six years of the first interview in 2006, while 35% of isolated ones had.
Does isolation speed up the physical decline, or does worsening health make it harder to stay connected? The study indicates that both can be true at the same time.