4 reasons docs should be on the lookout for patient loneliness

By Aine Cryts

It causes as much health damage as smoking. And it's even more detrimental to a patient's health than diabetes or obesity. Loneliness can be lethal and not much is being done in this country to fix the problem, according to a recent article in The Washington Post.

"In public health, we talk all the time about obesity and smoking and have all these interventions, but not about people who are lonely and socially isolated," Kerstin Gerst Emerson, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia's Institute of Gerontology told the news outlet. "There are really tangible, terrible outcomes. Lonely people are dying, they're less healthy, and they are costing our society more."

Here's a review of some recent research on the impact of loneliness on health outcomes:

  • This is a public health issue, according to Gerst Emerson and Jayani Jayawardhana, Ph.D, a professor of health policy and management at University of Georgia. Their study of 7,060 people aged 60 and older shows that chronic loneliness is a significant public health issue that has a dramatic impact on illness and the use of healthcare resources, according to the Post. Physicians, take note: For many lonely patients, the physician-patient relationship can be one of their few social interactions, according to the University of Georgia researchers.
  • Lonely people can get sick more easily. Social isolation led to increased activity among the genes that cause inflammation and a decrease in the number of genes that generate antibodies that fight off infection, Steve Cole, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at UCLA School of Medicine, told The Post.
  • Loneliness impacts depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem, according to an article in the Guardian. Day centers can help alleviate social isolation for older adults, but they're typically underfunded, Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in the United Kingdom, told the publication.
  • Loneliness also slows down recovery times. That's because the patient feels no one is interested in them, according to the Guardian. Patients experiencing loneliness are also less likely to take care of themselves and less likely to adhere to prescribed medications.

With these findings in mind, some experts argue that physicians should measure loneliness as a vital sign, FiercePracticeManagement reported previously. "With an intervention as simple as a phone call, home visit or community program, you can avoid unnecessary healthcare utilization and additional expenditures that ultimately cost all of us as a society," according to Jayawardhana.

To learn more:
- read The Washington Post article
- check out the Guardian article