After writing a post called More Negative Publicity about Loneliness, I got a suggestion from a follower to write a counter argument.
I went back to the article (Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds) to identify the research study that the findings were based on. Surprisingly, (for The Guardian) there was no reference link. After doing some searching I found an email for one of the researchers and he sent me a copy, Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: A national longitudinal study.
This is from the abstract (note the words modestly and marginal).
We found that feelings of loneliness were associated with increased mortality risk over a 6-year period, and that this effect was not explained by social relationships or health behaviors but was modestly explained by health outcomes. In cross-lagged panel models that tested the reciprocal prospective effects of loneliness and health, loneliness both affected and was affected by depressive symptoms and functional limitations over time, and had marginal effects on later self-rated health.
This was interesting, but what really surprised me was that nobody in the study had ever been asked if they were lonely.
This study used a 3-item composite index of loneliness which has been shown to have good validity and reliability. This measure is an important improvement over previous studies on the loneliness – mortality relationship that measured loneliness with a single item asking respondents whether and/or how often they felt lonely. Specifically, our 3-item measure avoids use of the term “lonely” or “loneliness” and thus avoids much of the stigma associated with and consequent underestimation of loneliness.
Based on a assumption that the “stigma” of being lonely is causing an underestimation of loneliness, the researchers used a “loneliness scale” that avoids the use of the term lonely or loneliness. But according to the abstract, even with this loneliness scale, they were still only able to find modest/marginal relationships between loneliness and poor health. Also, the total number of people in the study was 2,101 – but the finding in the headline was based on 303 people, (those who died during the six year study period). This was not disclosed in the article.
For me, the most significant finding in this study is that loneliness both affects and is affected by depressive symptoms and functional limitations. If you are depressed and/or have an illness that restricts your mobility, you are more likely to feel lonely. Could it be that loneliness has nothing to do with being older, but rather comes about when mental and physical illness prevents an older person from living a satisfying life?
The next reference to loneliness in the article did provide a link to the source material, A Longitudinal Analysis of Loneliness Among Older People in Great Britain. During the period 1999-2000, and again eight years later, the overall prevalence of loneliness was – 9% reporting severe loneliness, 30% reporting they were sometimes lonely, and 61% reporting that they were never lonely. During a follow up period, 60% of participants had a stable loneliness rating, with 40–50% rating themselves as never lonely, and 20–25% rating themselves as persistently lonely; 25% demonstrated decreased loneliness, and approximately 15% demonstrated worse loneliness.
Less than 10% of the study participants reported severe loneliness. And, as would be expected, changes in loneliness were linked with changes in marital status, living arrangements, social networks, and physical health. During the follow up study, 287 people were interviewed. If you do the math, 9% of 287 is 25 people. The majority, 61% (175 people) said they were never lonely.
The article warned readers that, “Loneliness can be twice as unhealthy as obesity, according to researchers who found that feelings of isolation can have a devastating impact on older people. The findings point to a coming crisis as the population ages and people increasingly live alone or far from their families.”
The real findings in the two research studies featured in the article point to the fact that the majority of older people are not lonely, and that loneliness does not have a devastating effect on their health or mortality. But these findings don’t point to a crisis, do they?