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Social isolation impacts physical functioning in older adults

Social isolation has a negative impact on physical functioning in older adults that progresses over time, according to a new report published by Elsevier. The study adds to a growing collection of research that links social isolation among older adults with poor health and premature mortality.

Study lead investigator Dr. Borja Del Pozo Cruz is an expert at the Center for Active and Healthy Ageing in the Department of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics at the University of Southern Denmark. 

“Physical functioning is understood to influence the health of individuals. And social isolation is prevalent among older adults,” said Dr. Del Pozo Cruz. 

“However, the true extent of the relationship between social isolation and physical functioning was not fully understood. We needed to shed some more light on this relationship, as it plays an important role in individual aging.”

Individuals who are socially isolated are more likely to develop mental health problems and have increased risk of premature death. In the United States, it is estimated that one in four older adults is isolated or severely isolated.

To investigate the connection between social isolation and physical functioning, the researchers used data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS).

The team analyzed observations from 12,427 NHATS participants to examine how individual changes in social isolation were associated with changes in objectively assessed physical functioning. 

The researchers found that the association between isolation and physical functioning shifts over old age and worsens the age-related decline in physical functioning. 

The results of the analysis showed that the older the individual, the greater the extent to which social isolation impacted their physical functioning and health.

“Physical functioning is a well-established marker of general health and it has been previously correlated with morbidity and mortality,” noted Dr. Del Pozo Cruz. “We demonstrate in this study that social isolation has a profound impact on the physical functioning in older adults. Mandated social contact restrictions and lockdowns due to COVID-19, coupled with more severe consequences of contagion among older adults, have likely exacerbated this trend.”

“Social isolation is one of the biggest challenges that societies face in the 21st century. We have to start thinking about this issue now to avoid more serious consequences down the track.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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