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Study finds sharp increase in loneliness among older adults during COVID-19 pandemic

Older adults suffering mental toll from efforts to avoid coronavirus

Older adults have been hit hard by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, not only suffering more severe illnesses and deaths, but also in terms of the mental toll.

A new study from the University of Michigan demonstrated just how deeply older adults have been affected. Researchers looked at the change in levels of loneliness among older adults from 2018 to 2020.

The National Poll on Healthy Aging found the number of participants who felt isolated from others more than doubled during that time, from 27% to 56%. The number who had infrequent social contact went from 28% to 46%.

“Loneliness in and of itself is a health threat and something that we should be taking very seriously,” researcher Erica Solway said. “There are studies that suggest that chronic loneliness can have a very severe impact on one’s physical and mental health, not just the day-to-day well-being, but actually, long-lasting health consequences, including a shorter life expectancy. So we need to take this very, very seriously.”

She said it’s very important to find safe ways to connect with older adults.

“We need to remember that we’re talking about physical distancing, and not social distancing, and that there are ways that we can maintain those social connections with others, even when we’re physically apart,” Solway said.

The study found older adults who interacted with neighbors or spent time outside were less likely to feel isolated.

Those who used social media were more likely to feel lonely.

“I think that social media and perhaps video chat, too, maybe works very well for some people and not as well for others,” Solway said.

The bottom line is that finding safe social outlets is important.

“We have a lot of people who are feeling disconnected and lonely, as these data suggest,” Solway said.

In 2018 and 2020, older adults who ate healthy, exercised and got sufficient sleep also tended to feel less lonely, researchers said.


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