In a recent study at UCL and elsewhere, researchers found that loneliness is responsible for 18% of depression among older people.
They showed that people’s subjective experiences of loneliness contributed to depression up to 12 years later, independent of more objective measures of social isolation.
The findings suggest that almost one in five depression cases among older adults could be prevented if loneliness were eliminated.
The study is published in The Lancet Psychiatry. One author is Dr. Gemma Lewis (UCL Psychiatry).
In the study, the team reviewed data from 4,211 participants 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.
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.
They 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 examined the proportion of depression that was due to loneliness and found that 18% of depression cases could be attributed to loneliness.
The team says interventions such as social prescribing, social skills training, and psychological therapies that target negative feelings of loneliness, may be important for the mental health of lonely older adults.
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