Long-term isolation can lead to depression and decreased physical function, according to a study by UCSF-Northwestern in the US.
Most people are at risk of loneliness, but for middle-aged and older adults who identify as Hispanic/Latino or live in poverty, loneliness may be less likely to resolve over time.
In a study in which 641 participants, whose average age was 63, were interviewed by phone over about 18 months during the pandemic, researchers from UC San Francisco and Northwestern University found that 16 percent suffered of persistent loneliness. Another 22 percent were initially single but adjusted over time, the researchers reported in their study published in Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
When the researchers looked at those participants whose feelings of loneliness dissipated as the pandemic progressed, they found that 53 percent of white participants fell into this category, compared to 18 percent of Hispanic/Latino participants. Similarly, those living above the poverty level were more likely to experience decreased loneliness compared to those living in poverty: 71% and 29%, respectively.
Loneliness leads to depression
“Transient loneliness is common throughout life, and although distressing in the short term, it can often motivate individuals to reconnect with social relationships or community,” said first author Ashwin A. Kotwal, professor of medicine in the Division of Geriatrics. of UCSF.
This motivation to reconnect with social relationships or engage in local activities may be one of the factors leading to the transition from loneliness to less loneliness, the researchers argue. Only 26% of participants who had overcome their previous loneliness were socially isolated, compared to 40% for those who remained alone, indicates Eurek Alert.
The researchers used data from the COVID-19 & Chronic Conditions study, which enrolled participants from five research projects in Chicago. Participants completed six interviews at three-month intervals. They had at least one chronic condition, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke or cancer. About half were white, 30% were black, and 20% were Hispanic/Latino, and 61% were female. In addition to participants who were persistently lonely or formerly lonely, 29% said they experienced occasional loneliness and 33% reported never being lonely.
Social distancing may hit Hispanic households harder
Restrictions on community events and religious services may also have contributed to prolonged loneliness and depression.
For those living in poverty, connecting with friends and family virtually during the pandemic, as well as obtaining quality masks, antigen tests and air purifiers, could have been prohibitive. They may also have been “disproportionately affected by reduced access to transportation and the closure of community activities,” the authors said. While the most virulent phase of the pandemic may be over, lingering loneliness continues to be a risk for some people, Kotwal said.
“People who are already dealing with socially or medically disruptive circumstances, such as chronic illness, widowhood, late disability or mental health problems, may face greater barriers to coping with loneliness,” he said, adding that prolonged loneliness can lead to psychological distress and depression. “There are several promising interventions to address loneliness.