A new national poll suggests that although staying close to home and avoiding crowded places can help older adults reduce their risk of contracting coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), it comes with a cost, especially for those with health challenges, according to the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

In June 2020, 56% of people over 50 years of age said they sometimes or often felt isolated from others, more than double the 27% who felt this way in a similar poll in 2018. Further, approximately half of those polled in June 2020 also said they felt more isolated than they had just before the pandemic arrived in the United States, whereas one-third said they had less companionship than before.

In social contacts, 46% of older adults reported in June that they infrequently interacted with friends, neighbors, or family outside their household, doing so once a week or less, compared with 28% who said this in 2018, according to the study.

The findings come from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, which is done for the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation with support from AARP and Michigan Medicine. The 2020 and 2018 polls on loneliness involved a national sample of more than 2000 adults between 50 and 80 years of age.

Conversely, 46% of older adults who said they interacted with people in their neighborhood at least once a week were less likely to say they experienced forms of loneliness. Technology also played a major role in connecting adults over 50 years of age with others, with 59% reporting using social media at least once a week and 31% who used video chat at least once a week, according to the study.

Many adults also engaged in healthy behaviors despite the COVID-19 pandemic, including 75% who said they were getting outdoors or interacting with nature, and 62% who said they got exercise several times a week.

The poll also showed that half of those adults who live alone and more than half of those who are unemployed or disabled (52%) said they felt a lack of companionship, compared with 39% of those who live with others, work or who are retired.

“Past studies have shown that prolonged isolation has a profound negative effect on health and wellbeing, as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP, in a press release. “It’s not surprising that older adults reported more loneliness since the pandemic began, particularly those who live alone. We need to continue finding ways to connect and engage with one another throughout this public health crisis.”

REFERENCE
Loneliness doubled among older adults in first months of COVID-19, poll shows. University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. https://ihpi.umich.edu/news/loneliness-doubled-among-older-adults-first-months-covid-19-poll-shows. Published September 14, 2020. Accessed September 16, 2020.