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Loneliness may foreshadow nursing home admission

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Adults 65 years and older who report a high degree of loneliness, tend to be admitted to a nursing home sooner than people who are not so lonely.

"That isn't to deny the role of illness in entering a nursing home, but lonely people may become ill sooner or need supervision sooner," says Dr. Robert Wallace, University of Iowa professor of preventive medicine, who co-authored the study with Iowa State University psychologists, Daniel Russell, Carolyn Cutrona and Arlene de la Mora.

This finding, published in the a recent issue of Psychology and Aging, compliments studies showing that loneliness contributes to a decline in both mental and physical health. In this study the researchers were able to separate loneliness from other factors that predict nursing home admissions such as depression, age and morale.

The researchers interviewed 3,763 rural Iowans living in Washington and Iowa counties. All the people interviewed were over 65 years old. None were living in a nursing home at the time of the first interview. The researchers collected information on age, education, income, gender, medical conditions, marital status and measured mental status, morale, social contact and support as well as loneliness.

After the initial interview, contact was made with members of the group once a year for the following four years, and nursing home admission was noted.

Despite the link between loneliness and mental and physical decline in the elderly, this is the first study to show that extreme loneliness predicts admission to the nursing home.

"One of the values of this study was that loneliness was determined before people went to a nursing home. Loneliness did not occur because the people became sick or couldn't get around," Wallace says. "It suggests that loneliness may be a precursor to mental and physical deterioration. It also suggests that interventions to prevent loneliness should be explored in order to keep older people independent."