Image of older man with cane, sitting alone

Loneliness in mid-to-later life is a risk factor for death later in life, a new study finds. Authors of the research wrote that loneliness may be a target for programs to improve life expectancy.

A variety of factors can lead to loneliness in older adults. The prevalence for older adults to feel isolated from others jumped from 27% in 2018 to 56% in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic; it stayed at 34% earlier this year, according to The US National Poll of Healthy Aging, which the team cited in their report, which appeared Monday in PNAS

Researchers evaluated loneliness over an eight-year span, and found it was linked to elevated mortality and excess deaths during the next 15 years when they followed up with study participants. 

Data came from 9,032 participants over the age of 50 in the population-based US Health and Retirement Study (HRS) between 1996 and 2019. Researchers measured loneliness status twice a year from 1996 to 2004, then used tools to gauge the association between cumulative loneliness from 1996 to 2004 and all-cause mortality from 2004 to 2019. 

Compared to those who said they never experienced a lonely point in their lives, people who were lonely at one point in time, two points in time or more than three times had 1.05, 1.06 and 1.16 times higher hazards for mortality between 2004 and 2019. The team did look at confounders such as age, ethnicity, volunteer involvement, marital status, and other health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. 

“Ameliorating the loneliness experience in mid-to-late life could be a potential intervention target to reduce excess deaths and increase life expectancy in the United States,” the authors wrote.

A month ago, another piece of research found the link between loneliness and mortality. When participants had visitors at least on a monthly basis, they had a lower risk for death, authors of that study noted.