“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health,” says study coauthor Linda Waite

U. CHICAGO (US)—Older adults who can adjust to being alone appear to have fewer health problems than those who feel lonely and disconnected, regardless of their actual levels of connectedness.

“The relationship between social disconnectedness and mental health appears to operate through feelings of loneliness and a perceived lack of social support,” says study coauthor Linda Waite of the University of Chicago.

Researchers measured the degree to which older adults are socially connected and socially active. They also assessed whether older adults feel lonely and whether they expect that friends and family would help them in times of need. Although not having many close friends contributes to poorer health for many older adults, those who also feel lonely face even greater health risks.

“Social disconnectedness is associated with worse physical health, regardless of whether it prompts feelings of loneliness or a perceived lack of social support,” explains Waite.

The consequences of poor mental health can be substantial, as deteriorating mental health also reduces people’s willingness to exercise and may increase health-risk behaviors such as cigarette smoking and alcohol use, Waite adds.

According to the findings, older adults who feel most isolated report 65 percent more depressive symptoms than those who feel least isolated, and the most socially connected older adults are three times as likely to report very good or excellent health compared to those who are least connected, regardless of whether they feel isolated. The study also suggests that social disconnectedness is not related to mental health unless it brings feelings of loneliness and isolation.

Older adults who are able to withstand socially isolating circumstances or adjust their expectations so they do not develop strong feelings of loneliness may fare better, the study suggests. “We need to better understand how older adults adapt to changes in their social relationships,” Waite notes.

The work should help policymakers develop programs to compensate for the problems brought on by social disconnectedness and loneliness among older people. Aging often brings changes in social relationships as individuals retire, take up new activities, endure losses and experience health changes.

“For some older adults, a shrinking circle of friends and family can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation,” says lead author Erin York Cornwell, who is now a postdoctoral associate in sociology at Cornell University. “Our findings suggest that those who adapt to losses so that they don’t feel isolated fare better with respect to both physical and mental health.”

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