How Older Adults Can Build Resilience Against Loneliness

Activities, social networks, and technology use helped mitigate the health effects of social isolation during COVID-19

Four adult women walking side-by-side on a path surrounded by green grass
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Loneliness, a feeling of distress or discomfort in response to perceived isolation, is common among older adults — particularly during periods of social isolation. And the phenomenon is associated with an increased likelihood of chronic disease, depression, and other health issues.

A new study from a multi-institution collaboration, including Harvard Medical School and Hebrew SeniorLife, explores the links between loneliness and the health of older adults during COVID-19. The paper, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, pinpoints several risk factors that contributed to older adults’ likelihood of experiencing loneliness, including older age, inability to complete daily activities, vision impairment, depression, and anxiety.

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“Importantly, [the study] also identified actionable ‘resilience factors’ that helped mitigate some negative effects of loneliness on physical and mental health outcomes,” said Tamara Fong, HMS associate professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and an author on the paper.

Researchers found that high cognitive functioning, large social networks, use of technology, and engagement with social and physical activity helped mitigate the effects of loneliness on physical health. Engagement with physical and social activity also lessened the effects of loneliness on mental health, while larger social networks curbed the effects on physical function.

The study used data collected both before and during COVID-19 from 238 participants of the Successful Aging after Elective Surgery study, who have been completing interviews with Hebrew SeniorLife for approximately 10 years. Interviews completed between July and December 2020 collected data on loneliness, social network size, technology use, activity engagement, and more. Outcomes measured included self-rated health, physical and mental health, and physical functioning in everyday activities.

To curb the effects of loneliness on health, the authors suggested that adults get involved in senior centers, participate in volunteer activities, and increase access to and knowledge of modern technological devices that allow for virtual social connection. The study highlighted these steps as practical interventions to decrease the detrimental health effects of social isolation.

Authorship, funding, disclosures

Additional authors included Eran Metzger, Franchesca Arias, Tammy T. Hshieh, Thomas G. Travison, Edward R. Marcantonio, Sharon K. Inouye, Julianna Liu, Ray Yun Gou, Eva M. Schmitt, Richard N. Jones, and Patricia A. Tabloski.

The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging R33AG071744 (SKI); 2R01AG044518 (SKI).

Adapted from a Hebrew SeniorLife news release.