Closeup of man with stomach pain

Older adults who live with digestive diseases have higher rates of depression and loneliness compared to their peers who don’t have the diseases, a new study finds. 

For the study, Shirley Ann Cohen-Mekelburg, MD, a gastroenterologist with Michigan Medicine, sought to explore the psychological factors related to the diseases.

“Many people don’t realize that these conditions are very common in ambulatory care,” she said, citing that about 40% of Americans have digestive diseases.

“As physicians, it’s important for us to pay attention to psychosocial factors involved in the lives of our patients, but they often go overlooked,” she added.

Her team evaluated the rates of loneliness, depression and social isolation in older adults with and without digestive diseases. Researchers used data from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study that was collected from 2008 to 2016 from 7,110 people over the age of 50. The team identified 56% of individuals with a digestive disease in that group. Findings were published Sept. 7 in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

Of the participants, 60.4% and 55.6% with and without digestive diseases reported loneliness. Of them, 12.7% and 7.5% reported severe depression, and 8.9% and 8.7% reported social isolation, respectively.

“We found that individuals with a digestive disease were more likely to report ‘poor-or-fair’ health when compared to those without one. And among patients with a digestive disease, loneliness, as well as moderate to severe depression, were associated with greater odds of self-reporting ‘poor-or-fair’ health,” Cohen-Mekelburg said.

“The correlation between loneliness and depression is well established,” Cohen-Mekelburg said.

Social isolation, on the other hand, refers to the “objective physical separation from other people, which is independent of psychological well-being,” she said.

Cohen-Mekelburg said that she hopes these findings eventually empower gastroenterologists to “screen patients for depression and loneliness,” in addition to their physical symptoms