SOURCE: University of Georgia, news release, March 31, 2015
TUESDAY, April 7, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Older adults who are chronically lonely visit the doctor more often than those who feel more socially connected, according to a new study.
The findings suggest that taking steps to reduce loneliness among older adults may lead to significantly fewer doctor visits and lower health care costs, the University of Georgia researchers said.
They looked at the responses of more than 3,500 American adults 60 and older who were living independently and took part in national surveys in 2008 and 2012. Those who said they were lonely in both surveys were considered to be chronically lonely.
There was a significant association between being chronically lonely and an increased number of doctor visits, but not with a higher number of hospitalizations, according to the study.
"This finding made sense to us. You build a relationship with your physician over the years, so a visit to the doctor's office is like seeing a friend. Hospitalizations, on the other hand, require a referral from a doctor, and you don't know who you will see," study co-author Jayani Jayawardhana, an assistant professor in health policy and management at the University of Georgia School of Public Health, said in a university news release.
Results of the study were published online in the American Journal of Public Health.
Though the study only found an association between seniors' feelings of loneliness and increased doctor visits, the findings suggest that health care providers should take loneliness into consideration when seeing older patients for other illnesses and complaints, according to the researchers.
Study co-author Kerstin Gerst Emerson, also an assistant professor of health policy and management, said it's all about the way a patient feels.
"We often assume that if a person has enough friends and relatives, they are doing OK. But loneliness is not the same as being alone. You can be lonely in a crowded room. It's very much about how you feel about your actual social relationships," she said in the news release. Emerson is also a faculty member in the university's Institute of Gerontology.
The study also found that the percentage of respondents who said they were lonely rose from 53 percent in the first survey to 57 percent in the second survey. Those who said they were lonely had more symptoms of depression, more problems with normal daily tasks, and were less likely to rate their health as good, very good or excellent.
Despite high rates of loneliness among older adults and the impact it has on health and the use of medical services, loneliness receives little attention from public health officials and medical professionals, said Emerson.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging explains the importance of social activities for older adults.