Socially-isolated older adults at higher risk of being hospitalized for respiratory disease

LONDON — Spending too much time alone can be a pitfall for future health risks. Respiratory diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, are common causes for hospitalization, especially among the elderly. According to a long-term study of older adults, these two things have a concerning connection. Researchers at University College London say loneliness and social isolation can put older patients with respiratory problems at higher risk of needing emergency care.

Using data from the English Longitudinal Study On Aging (ELSA), the team finds loneliness is a separate risk factor from other problems which cause hospitalization, such as poor general health and unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The study examined 4,478 people from ELSA, merging death statistics with hospitalization records. Study authors measured social isolation by looking at whether or not an older patient lived alone. Researchers also included social contact with friends and family and other social engagements in the report. A measurement of loneliness was created using the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

“Whilst this research study focused on respiratory disease, it does raise questions as to if, and how, hospital admissions for other respiratory conditions such as COVID-19 may be related to social factors such as isolation in addition to biomedical factors,” lead author Daisy Fancourt says in a media release.

Other factors observed in the study include the patient’s gender, ethnicity, education, household income, underlying health issues, undiagnosed cases of COPD, and lifestyle choices.

Less activity from social isolation creates greater health risks

Researchers monitored the group for an average of 9 ½ years, ending the review in January 2018 or earlier if a participant died. Roughly one in ten participants landed in the hospital for respiratory disease. Influential factors such as loneliness and social contact with family did not appear to have a connection to their visit. However, living alone and poor social engagement did contribute to their hospitalization. The chances of needing emergency care increased by 32 and 24 percent, respectively.

Researchers discovered that those who are socially inactive, are more likely to be physically inactive and smoke more. Even when symptoms appear, they are less likely to see a doctor.

“Older adults living alone with existing lung conditions may benefit from additional targeted community support to try and reduce the risk of hospital admissions,” researchers recommend. “The roll out of social prescribing schemes may present opportunities for referring those individuals to social engagement community activities.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COPD was the third leading cause of the death in the U.S. in 2014. Over 15 million people have been diagnosed with the condition. While social isolation and loneliness plays a role in other illnesses leading to a hospital trip, researchers are still trying to confirm if respiratory issues will join that list.

The study was published in the journal Thorax.

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Craig T Lee

Craig is a freelance writer who enjoys researching everything on the earth’s surface and beyond. In his free time, Craig enjoys binge watching Netflix series and spending time with his friends.

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