Millions of older adults across the country struggle with feelings of loneliness, isolation and a lack of regular companionship, according to the results of a new University of Michigan-AARP poll of adults between the ages of 50 and 80.
These feelings were more common for those who struggled with their physical or mental health, as well as those living with hearing loss, a finding that adds to a growing body of research that links social isolation to a variety of negative health effects, including shorter life expectancies.
According to the survey results, 1 in 3 adults say they lack regular companionship, and 1 in 4 say they feel isolated from other people at least some of the time. This survey is part of the National Poll on Healthy Aging sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center.
“We know that social isolation and loneliness are as bad for our health as obesity and smoking,” says Alison Bryant, AARP senior vice president of research. “AARP’s own research shows that older adults who are unpaid caregivers, are low-income or that identify as LGBT are at an increased risk for chronic loneliness.”
The poll found that those who were unemployed, earned less than $60,000 a year, had children in their home or lived alone were more likely to report feeling a lack of companionship or social isolation. Among respondents living alone, for example, 60 percent reported feeling a lack of companionship and 41 percent reported feeling isolated. Women were also more likely than men to report feeling a lack of companionship (36 percent versus 31 percent).
“More than a quarter of poll respondents said they only had social contact once a week, or less, with family members they don’t live with, or with friends and neighbors,” says poll codirector and social science researcher Erica Solway. “These results indicate the importance of proactively reaching out to those in your community who may be at risk of feeling isolated and disconnected, especially those with or at risk of health issues.”
Older adults who reported being socially active every day or several times a week were less likely to report a lack of companionship or feeling isolated. Respondents who said they ate healthy diets, exercised, got enough sleep or didn’t use tobacco also fared better than their peers with less healthy habits.
And while feelings of social isolation and a lack of companionship went hand in hand for the majority of respondents, that wasn’t true for all: 37 percent of those who felt a lack of companionship did not feel isolated, while 20 percent of those who felt isolated did not feel a lack of companionship.
The poll results are based on responses from 2,051 people ages 50 to 80, with a margin of error of plus or minus 1 to 2 percentage points. The full report, along with past surveys, is available on the National Poll on Healthy Aging website.