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Loneliness can lead to depression in older adults: Study

Published on:11 November 2020, 18:47pm IST
An English study found that loneliness is responsible for 18% of all depression cases in England.
Team Health Shots
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Engage with your parents to keep loneliness and depression at bay. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

When we think of mental health, we very rarely think of it in the context of the elderly. For most of us, poor mental health is a millennial problem—not something that our parents with steely resolves have.

But did you know older adults are more prone to depression and anxiety, thanks to the ever changing world amongst other factors? In fact, loneliness can trigger depression in the elderly, f this new study by University College London is believed.

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The study says that loneliness is responsible for 18% of depression among people over 50 in England. The findings, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, suggest that almost one in five depression cases among older adults could be prevented if loneliness were eliminated.

The link between loneliness and depression

The researchers found that people’s subjective experiences of loneliness contributed to depression up to 12 years later, independent of more objective measures of social isolation.

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Senior author Dr Gemma Lewis (UCL Psychiatry) said: “We found that whether people considered themselves to be lonely was a bigger risk factor for depression than how many social contacts and support they had. The findings suggest that it’s not just spending time with other people that matters, but having meaningful relationships and companionship.”

The researchers reviewed data from 4,211 participants of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, aged 52 and over, who had answered questions at regular intervals over a 12-year period about their experiences of loneliness, social engagement and social support, as well as depressive symptoms.

To measure loneliness, participants were asked three questions about lacking companionship, feeling left out, and feeling isolated, and their answers combined into a loneliness score on a seven-point scale.

Each one-point increase on the loneliness scale corresponded to a doubling of the odds of depression (based on a clinical threshold of depressive symptoms rather than a diagnosis). The researchers accounted for depression and loneliness levels at the start of the study to reduce the possibility that depression was responsible for the increasing feelings of loneliness that were reported.

The greater the loneliness, the more severe the depressive symptoms

The researchers also found that depressive symptoms increased over time among people with greater loneliness, suggesting that loneliness was leading to future depression.

As part of their analysis, the researchers investigated the proportion of depression that was due to loneliness and found that 18% of depression cases could be attributed to loneliness (as measured one year earlier).

Dr Lewis added: “Building relationships, meaningful connections and a sense of belongingness may be more important than just increasing how much time people spend with others.”

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Robin Hewings, Director of Campaigns, Policy and Research at the Campaign to End Loneliness said: “This important study adds to our understanding of the very serious impacts of loneliness on our mental and physical health.”

“The author’s findings that nearly one in five cases of depression in older people could potentially be prevented if loneliness were eliminated only adds to the case for comprehensive action across society. In our day-to-day lives that can mean reaching out to those around us,” he concluded.

(With inputs from ANI)

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