Loneliness in old age: implications for the health of the elderly

Health and social provision in old age is stretched as never before as our population has ever increasing life expectancy. However, while we may be living longer, the elderly and their carers are often managing chronic, long term conditions which place a burden on the existing health and social care infrastructure. In addition there is new evidence which suggests that poor mental health from loneliness compromises health and wellbeing for older patients and may well be leading to increased hospital admissions.

A report from the National Office of Statistics, just published shows that personal well-being is highest for those aged 65-79 but in the oldest age groups there is a fall in ratings of personal well-being and it notes that previous evidence has shown that those aged 80 and over were twice as likely to report feelings of loneliness as those in younger age groups.

It is now a matter of concern for Public Health Officials who fear that the rise of loneliness will in turn have a crippling effect on health care in particular.

In their Guide – Combating Loneliness – the Local Government Association say:

‘A recent systematic review found that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 30 per cent and a study from Brigham Young University, in Utah, USA, revealed loneliness can be more harmful to health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.’

It goes on to say:

‘It is associated with higher blood pressure and depression, and leads to higher rates of mortality-comparable to those associated with smoking and alcohol consumption. It is also linked to higher incidence of dementia, with one study reporting a doubled risk of Alzheimer’s disease in lonely people compared with those who were not lonely.’

Lonely individuals are also more likely to access health care and are more at risk of:

  • Falls
  • Needing long term care
  • Using Accident and Emergency Services

Concern has also been expressed by Professor Keith Willett, Director for acute care at NHS England that if the problems of elderly care and the consequent health requirements are not addressed then hospitals will become ‘dormitories for older people’ unless this is addressed and he suggests that care should be brought to individuals in their own homes.

By 2039 about 1 in 12 of the population will be aged 80 or over as illnesses that previously would have cut short life are successfully treated and more and more people live longer. This alone is causing an increase of 1-2% per annum in the cost of healthcare.

With loneliness now suggested as a factor bringing more elderly people into healthcare for medical rather than social care, unless there is urgent change, then it threatens to overwhelm health services which are already under significant strain.

  • If you or an elderly relative need advice regarding access to health or social care provision then contact a member of our Elderly Care team on 0345 209 1495
  • If you are concerned about the quality of medical treatment given to yourself or a relative, contact a member of our Medical Negligence team on 0345 209 1055

Members of our Elderly Client and Clinical Negligence Teams will be presenting sessions at our forthcoming seminar on 3 March 2016  – for further details contact Victoria James at Victoria.James@clarkewillmott.com