Loneliness the top cause of depression in older adults, even if they’re socially active

LONDON — Even while standing in a crowded room, a person can feel lonely and isolated at times. Researchers at University College London find loneliness is a major risk factor for mental health issues, especially among older adults. Their study reveals that feelings of loneliness account for nearly one in five cases of depression in people over age 50.

Even more concerning, feeling alone doesn’t just affect that person today, but for years to come. Researchers say experiencing loneliness can contribute to a person’s depression even 12 years after those feelings start. Overall, 18 percent of the participants in the British study can link their depressive symptoms to feeling lonely.

Over 4,200 people over the age of 52 took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing during its 12-year run. The volunteers regularly answered questions regarding their level of social engagement, social support, and how often they feel lonely. Study authors discovered that social interaction has more to do with quality over quantity when it comes to fighting off depression.

“We found that whether people considered themselves to be lonely was a bigger risk factor for depression than how many social contacts and support they had. The findings suggest that it’s not just spending time with other people that matters, but having meaningful relationships and companionship,” senior author Dr. Gemma Lewis says in a university release.

Not stopping loneliness today can have serious consequences in the future

The study assigned a seven-point scale to the participants’ answers about loneliness. Researchers asked three main questions about lacking companionship, feeling left out, and feeling isolated from others.

For every one point a person’s level of loneliness increased, study authors say the odds of developing depression doubled. This figure was based off of the clinical benchmarks for depressive symptoms, not a doctor’s diagnosis. The findings reveal symptoms of depression worsen over time as people report greater levels of loneliness.

“Health professionals working with older people who report being lonely should know that they are at risk of depression. Interventions such as social prescribing, social skills training, and psychological therapies that target negative feelings of loneliness, may be important for the mental health of lonely older adults,” says study first author Siu Long Lee.

“Our study has important public health implications, as it suggests that community-based approaches designed to reduce loneliness could reduce depression rates. Building relationships, meaningful connections and a sense of belongingness may be more important than just increasing how much time people spend with others,” Dr. Lewis concludes.

The study appears in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry.