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Greatest Health Risk for Older Adults Revealed — and It's Not Smoking, Alcoholism or Obesity

Study: Loneliness is the Worst Health Condition for Older Adults
Source: Unsplash

A new study reveals the greatest health stressor for older primary care patients is not obesity alcoholism or smoking. It's loneliness.

Mar. 28 2024, Published 1:03 p.m. ET

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Recent research has unveiled a surprising revelation about the primary health stressor faced by older adults under primary care and it's not obesity, alcoholism or smoking.

Instead, loneliness emerges as a potent threat, surpassing even the risks associated with smoking over 15 cigarettes daily.

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The study highlights that loneliness outweighs the adverse effects of physical inactivity, indicating a concerning trend where 53% of older adults in primary care settings grapple with this emotional burden.

It's not just a matter of emotional well-being; loneliness significantly diminishes both physical and mental health, profoundly impacting overall quality of life.

Data for this study was drawn from the Caregiver Outcomes of Alzheimer’s Disease Screening (COADS) clinical trial, conducted amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, researchers note a consistent rise in loneliness among this demographic even before the pandemic, with numbers continuing to surge today.

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Published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, the study titled "Loneliness in older primary care patients and its relationship to physical and mental health-related quality of life" underscores the urgent need for primary care physicians to forge personal connections with lonely patients.

Lead author Dr. Monica Williams-Farrelly, a Regenstrief research scientist and assistant research professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, stresses the necessity for physicians to screen patients for loneliness as rigorously as they do for other health indicators like smoking or blood sugar levels.


Dr. Williams-Farrelly explains that aging brings about significant life changes such as divorce, retirement and loss of loved ones, all of which can erode social connections, exacerbating loneliness.

She emphasizes the crucial role of primary care physicians in not only identifying loneliness but also in recommending effective strategies to combat it.

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Echoing these sentiments, Dr. Nicole Fowler, another researcher involved in the study, emphasizes the timeliness of addressing loneliness, particularly in light of the U.S. Surgeon General's call to tackle the loneliness epidemic.

The study advocates for interventions tailored to mitigate loneliness among older adults, emphasizing the importance of primary care clinicians in initiating discussions and providing resources to foster meaningful social relationships.

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Dr. Williams-Farrelly emphasizes that while loneliness may seem straightforward, addressing it effectively can be complex, especially considering its prevalence prior to the pandemic and its exacerbation during the pandemic-induced social isolation.

One proposed intervention discussed in the study is the "Circle of Friends" concept, a group-based psychosocial rehabilitation model designed to facilitate social interaction and friendship development.

According to researchers, this model has shown promise in reducing loneliness and improving health outcomes, offering a potential solution to this growing public health concern.


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