In January of 2023, the University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging (NPHA) conducted a survey involving adults aged 50 to 80 to assess their feelings of loneliness and social interactions. This study aimed to compare the results with similar surveys conducted in 2018, 2020, 2021, and 2022 to discern trends in loneliness and social engagement before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the NPHA’s latest report, 34% of adults aged 50 to 80 reported feeling isolated from others at some point in the past year. This marks a significant decrease from 56% in 2020 and a slight increase from 27% in 2018. Similarly, 37% of older adults indicated experiencing a lack of companionship in the past year, compared to 41% in 2020 and 34% in 2018.
The survey also revealed that one-third of older adults reported infrequent contact with people outside their homes in 2023. This rate was notably lower than the 46% reported in 2020, yet higher than the 28% in 2018. These findings indicated a mixed trajectory in terms of social interaction during the pandemic.
The survey identified certain factors associated with feelings of isolation, lack of companionship, and limited social contact. Those reporting fair or poor mental health, as well as poor physical health, were more likely to experience loneliness. The same was true for individuals with health issues or disabilities that affected daily activities, those not employed or retired, those living alone, and those in the 50-64 age group. Women also reported feeling lonelier than men.
Loneliness has substantial implications for mental, cognitive, and physical health, general well-being, and even longevity. Previous NPHA surveys consistently demonstrated that isolation, lack of companionship, and infrequent social contact correlated with poorer mental and physical health among older adults.
While the report showed a decline in feelings of isolation and lack of companionship among adults aged 50 to 80 in 2023, the rates were still significant. The findings emphasized that addressing loneliness requires a multifaceted approach. Similar to discussing diet and exercise, clinicians should identify older adults at higher risk of loneliness and refer them to community resources like senior centers or local libraries to promote social connections. Friends and family members are also encouraged to reconnect with older individuals who might have experienced limited contact in recent years.
The study’s results underscored the importance of tackling the issue of loneliness, which the U.S. Surgeon General has referred to as an “epidemic.” Policymakers, clinicians, and family members need to work together to combat this issue and its adverse effects on older adults’ well-being.
The data for this report were collected through a nationally representative survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation. The survey, administered in January 2023 to adults aged 50 to 80 (n=2,563), combined online and phone methods. The sample was weighted to reflect U.S. Census Bureau figures, resulting in a completion rate of 61%. The margin of error ranged from ±1 to 3 percentage points for overall results and higher for subgroups.
It’s important to note that the findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the University of Michigan, which retains all rights over the material.