Loneliness in older persons: a predictor of functional decline and death

Arch Intern Med. 2012 Jul 23;172(14):1078-83. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1993.


Background: Loneliness is a common source of distress, suffering, and impaired quality of life in older persons. We examined the relationship between loneliness, functional decline, and death in adults older than 60 years in the United States.

Methods: This is a longitudinal cohort study of 1604 participants in the psychosocial module of the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of older persons. Baseline assessment was in 2002 and follow-up assessments occurred every 2 years until 2008. Subjects were asked if they (1) feel left out, (2) feel isolated, or (3) lack companionship. Subjects were categorized as not lonely if they responded hardly ever to all 3 questions and lonely if they responded some of the time or often to any of the 3 questions. The primary outcomes were time to death over 6 years and functional decline over 6 years on the following 4 measures: difficulty on an increased number of activities of daily living (ADL), difficulty in an increased number of upper extremity tasks, decline in mobility, or increased difficulty in stair climbing. Multivariate analyses adjusted for demographic variables, socioeconomic status, living situation, depression, and various medical conditions.

Results: The mean age of subjects was 71 years. Fifty-nine percent were women; 81% were white, 11%, black, and 6%, Hispanic; and 18% lived alone. Among the elderly participants, 43% reported feeling lonely. Loneliness was associated with all outcome measures. Lonely subjects were more likely to experience decline in ADL (24.8% vs 12.5%; adjusted risk ratio [RR], 1.59; 95% CI, 1.23-2.07); develop difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5% vs 28.3%; adjusted RR, 1.28; 95% CI, 1.08-1.52); experience decline in mobility (38.1% vs 29.4%; adjusted RR, 1.18; 95% CI, 0.99-1.41); or experience difficulty in climbing (40.8% vs 27.9%; adjusted RR, 1.31; 95% CI, 1.10-1.57). Loneliness was associated with an increased risk of death (22.8% vs 14.2%; adjusted HR, 1.45; 95% CI, 1.11-1.88).

Conclusion: Among participants who were older than 60 years, loneliness was a predictor of functional decline and death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Loneliness*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mortality*
  • United States
  • Upper Extremity / physiology
  • Walking