Pain Can Predict the Onset of Loneliness in Older Adults

Chronic pain affects an estimated 100 million Americans, and that number is expected to grow as the U.S. population continues to age. Today, between 60 percent and 75 percent of older adults experience persistent pain.

Living with constant pain can dramatically limit an individual’s ability to function normally and enjoy life, and a recent study from the University of Georgia found that pain can predict the onset of another serious health problem – loneliness.

“People are actually more likely to die prematurely if they’re lonely, and it’s comparable to other risk factors we talk about all the time like smoking or not exercising,” said Dr. Kerstin Emerson, clinical assistant professor of gerontology with UGA’s Institute of Gerontology in the College of Public Health and lead author on the study.

Though loneliness has been linked to pain in previous studies, this is the first to look at pain’s role in causing loneliness.

“I’ve always been interested in how we can stop loneliness from happening,” said Dr. Emerson, “so if pain predicts loneliness, can we intervene at the pain level before we get to loneliness?”

Researchers analyzed questionnaires from the 2008 and 2012 Health and Retirement Study, a national study of senior households in the U.S. They limited their sample to adults over 60 living in their communities who were not lonely in 2008 to determine if pain would predict the onset of loneliness four years later.

“We looked at older adults living in communities specifically because they’re not who we’re usually as worried about when we think about loneliness,” noted Dr. Emerson, “but they are likely to have pain.”

After controlling for factors like marital status, race, education, and others, persistent pain remained a significant predictor of loneliness. Emerson believes that these findings emphasize the point that any older adult experiencing chronic pain may be at risk for loneliness.

“Married people living in the community are not normally our target audience for interventions for loneliness, but people who have persistent high levels of pain, despite having social outlets, have higher risk of becoming lonely,” she said.

Dr. Emerson notes that many older adults can be stoic about their pain, but seeking treatment is an important step to prevent further health complications. However, managing pain via powerful, opioid-based medications can also encourage social isolation. Side effects of the medications like lethargy and nausea can be so severe, it’s difficult to leave the house.

Still, there are some older adults who develop ways to adapt to their pain and go about their day as usual. Dr. Emerson and her colleagues suggest that future research into these adaptive strategies could point the way to help those in pain keep up an active social life.

The study “Pain as a Risk Factor for Loneliness Among Older Adults” appeared in the Journal of Aging and Health and is available online: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0898264317721348.

Additional study authors include Mr. Ian Boggero with the University of Kentucky, and Dr. Glenn Ostir and Dr. Jayani Jayawardhana, both of UGA’s College of Public Health.