Background: Several international studies have substantiated the role of loneliness as a risk factor for mortality. Although both theoretical and empirical research has supported the classification of loneliness as either situational or chronic, research to date has not evaluated whether this classification has a differential impact upon mortality.
Methods: To establish the definition of situational vs. chronic loneliness, we used three waves of the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative sample of Americans over the age of 50 years. Baseline data for the present study were collected in the years 1996, 1998, and 2000. The present study concerns the 7,638 individuals who completed all three waves; their loneliness was classified as either not lonely, situational loneliness or chronic loneliness. Mortality data were available through to the year 2004.
Results: Those identified as "situationally lonely" (HR = 1.56; 95% CI: 1.52-1.62) as well as those identified as "chronically lonely" (HR = 1.83; 95% CI: 1.71-1.87) had a greater risk for all cause mortality net of the effect of possible demographic and health confounders. Nonetheless, relative to those classified as "situationally lonely," individuals classified as "chronically lonely" had a slightly greater mortality risk.
Conclusions: The current study emphasizes the important role loneliness plays in older adults' health. The study further supports current division into situational vs. chronic loneliness, yet suggests that both types serve as substantial mortality risks.