Nursing home resident sitting on the side of her bed

Overall rates of loneliness in older women have increased during the pandemic and are tied in part to the disruption of social connections, a new study reveals.

The findings come from an examination of healthcare data from more than 27,000 women aged 71 to 104 who were surveyed for the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). Severe loneliness was reported by 19% of the women from February to October 2020, compared to 10% of respondents surveyed between 2014 and 2016. 

Nearly 47% of study participants reported living alone during the early months of the pandemic. Most (80%) reported communicating daily or several times per week with contacts outside their home. But 25% said communication was more infrequent than before the pandemic and only 39% were speaking to their social contacts in person.

Fully 19% of women surveyed during the pandemic reported clinically significant depressive symptoms.

Women with worsening loneliness were more likely to be relatively older, have experienced stressful life events, to be bereaved and to have histories of vascular disease and depression. Social connection disruptions were also linked to high loneliness rates.

Women of color report decreased loneliness

Women of color were notable outliers when responses were broken down by racial group. More Black and Asian/Pacific Islanders said that their loneliness decreased during the pandemic. Investigators attributed this finding to these groups having more available social connections relative to white people. For example, studies have found that white people are more likely to live alone, have limited social contact and be childless than Black people, the researchers noted.

Other factors associated with lower levels of loneliness were relatively frequent physical activity, being optimistic and having a higher purpose in life. 

Overall, the findings of increased loneliness is significant and amounts to a “silent epidemic,” concluded study co-author Jean Wactawski-Wende, Ph.D., of the University at Buffalo in New York.

A more recent pandemic survey of the same women will be released later this year to provide a longer-term perspective, Wactawski-Wende said.

“We are only beginning to understand the many ways the pandemic has impacted our health, including emotional health and well-being,” she concluded.

Full findings were published in the Journals of Gerontology.

In related news:

Social isolation, loneliness increase cardiovascular risk in older women A new study of nearly 60,000 postmenopausal women found the risk of heart disease rose as much as 27% in those who had few social contacts and felt they were isolated from others. The full story can be found here.