Older adults who perceive themselves as lonely are expected to live a shorter life than their peers who report fulfilling social connections, a new survey analysis has found.

The impact of loneliness also takes a toll in potential years lived in active good health, according to the study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Investigators interviewed more than 3,400 participants in Singapore in 2009, between 2011 and 2012, and 2015. Participants’ health states were defined using self-rated health status and activity of daily living/instrumental ADL status.  

At age 60, 70 and 80, participants who saw themselves as “sometimes lonely” or “mostly lonely” had shorter total life expectancy and fewer healthy and active years than their peers who said they were never lonely, reported co-author Rahul Malhotra MBBS, M.D., MPH, of Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore.

For example, participants aged 60 can expect to live three to five years less, on average, compared to their never lonely cohort, she said. Similar contrasts were found between lonely and never lonely participants at age 70 and 80.

The never-lonely seniors also had an advantage in years lived without limitations on daily living activities. At age 60, sometimes lonely or mostly lonely seniors can expect to spend an average of three to five fewer years of their remaining life without ADL limitations, compared to these peers. At age 70, their active life expectancy falls an average of two to four fewer years. At age 80, they have one to three fewer years of active living, on average.

The results align with those from other studies of loneliness in older adults. A 2020 study from the Netherlands, for example, has tied loneliness to increased mortality in frail seniors, and a U.S. study from the same year linked the condition to more intensive end-of-life care needs. Chronic loneliness has even been shown to up the odds of type 2 diabetes diagnoses in older adults.

Singapore, the focus of the current study, has a rapidly aging population and a collectivistic culture which prioritizes relationships and interconnectedness, the study authors noted. The lack of connection may be especially impactful on this population when compared to residents of countries with individualistic cultures, they speculated.