91% of the elderly who are followed in Primary Health Care reveals some degree of loneliness with one third actually reporting severe feelings of loneliness. This is the conclusion reached from a study carried out by a group of CINTESIS researchers in partnership with Regional Health Administration of the North (ARS-Norte).
The objective of the research was to evaluate the impact of loneliness on the elderly who are being followed in a Health Center. For this, 150 people were interviewed, aged 65 or older, from an urban area of Northern Portugal.
The results revealed that loneliness interferes with medical care, with elderly people who report higher levels of loneliness are also those who are more often polymedicated.”Loneliness leads to an increase in the use of health services, as evidenced by its relationship with chronic use of medication, especially among the elderly over 80 years of age”, explain the researchers of this study, which was published in the scientific journal Family Medicine & Primary Care Review.
Paulo Santos, CINTESIS researcher and professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto, and Catarina Rocha-Vieira, from ARS-Norte, argue that “it is important to realize that loneliness in the elderly leads to greater somatization of their suffering and increases the risk of being overmedicated”. They therefore call for “strategies to reduce loneliness among the elderly as a way to improve individual health indicators and reduce the risk of overdiagnosis and of polymedication”.
Simple acts such as looking for company, engaging in family life, and maintaining active daily routines that ensure contact with others are examples of strategies that can reduce loneliness and improve the health of older people, exemplify the authors. At the same time, they defend that political, legislative, social and health measures should be taken to promote the maintenance of an active life after retirement so as to stimulate the sense of being useful of the elderly by protecting them from loneliness and its health consequences.”
The researchers also concluded that being 80 or older, live alone, having low educational level (less than 9 years of schooling), being dissatisfied with income and having a dysfunctional family structure are the main factors associated to loneliness. In contrast, being married or having a life partner, and maintaining a professional activity have emerged as protective factors.
This study was conducted in an urban area of Northern Portugal, which presents a proportion of the elderly population slightly below the national average (estimated at 19%). In the reality of the national territory and especially in regions with an ageing population, as in districts of the inland areas of Alentejo, the problem can be even bigger.
Loneliness is common in the geriatric population and interferes significantly with health care and should be considered a determinant of health. “Incorporating this factor into clinical decision-making is critical to improve health care,” the researchers conclude.
The study also counted with the participation of Gustavo Oliveira (from the Garcia d’Orta Family Health Unit) and Luciana Couto (CINTESIS researcher and professor at the Department of Community Medicine, Health Information and Decision of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Porto) .