Older Adults' Social Relationships and Health Care Utilization: A Systematic Review

Am J Public Health. 2018 Apr;108(4):e1-e10. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2017.304256. Epub 2018 Feb 22.


Background: Deficiencies in older people's social relationships (including loneliness, social isolation, and low social support) have been implicated as a cause of premature mortality and increased morbidity. Whether they affect service use is unclear.

Objectives: To determine whether social relationships are associated with older adults' use of health services, independently of health-related needs.

Search methods: We searched 8 electronic databases (MEDLINE, Embase, CINAHL, Web of Science, PsycINFO, Scopus, the Cochrane Library, and the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination) for data published between 1983 and 2016. We also identified relevant sources from scanning the reference lists of included studies and review articles, contacting authors to identify additional studies, and searching the tables of contents of key journals.

Selection criteria: Studies met inclusion criteria if more than 50% of participants were older than 60 years or mean age was older than 60 years; they included a measure of social networks, received social support, or perceived support; and they reported quantitative data on the association between social relationships and older adults' health service utilization.

Data collection and analysis: Two researchers independently screened studies for inclusion. They extracted data and appraised study quality by using standardized forms. In a narrative synthesis, we grouped the studies according to the outcome of interest (physician visits, hospital admissions, hospital readmissions, emergency department use, hospital length of stay, utilization of home- and community-based services, contact with general health services, and mental health service use) and the domain of social relationships covered (social networks, received social support, or perceived support). For each service type and social relationship domain, we assessed the strength of the evidence across studies according to the quantity and quality of studies and consistency of findings.

Main results: The literature search retrieved 26 077 citations, 126 of which met inclusion criteria. Data were reported across 226 678 participants from 19 countries. We identified strong evidence of an association between weaker social relationships and increased rates of readmission to hospital (75% of high-quality studies reported evidence of an association in the same direction). In evidence of moderate strength, according to 2 high-quality and 3 medium-quality studies, smaller social networks were associated with longer hospital stays. When we considered received and perceived social support separately, they were not linked to health care use. Overall, the evidence did not indicate that older patients with weaker social relationships place greater demands on ambulatory care (including physician visits and community- or home-based services) than warranted by their needs.

Authors' conclusions: Current evidence does not support the view that, independently of health status, older patients with lower levels of social support place greater demands on ambulatory care. Future research on social relationships would benefit from a consensus on clinically relevant concepts to measure. Public Health Implications. Our findings are important for public health because they challenge the notion that lonely older adults are a burden on all health and social care services. In high-income countries, interventions aimed at reducing social isolation and loneliness are promoted as a means of preventing inappropriate service use. Our review cautions against assuming that reductions in care utilization can be achieved by intervening to strengthen social relationships.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care / psychology*
  • Social Isolation / psychology
  • Social Support*