Older adults who are socially isolated are more likely to experience serious disability or die after a stay in the intensive care unit (ICU), new research reveals.
“This important research finding sheds light on a crucial health care issue that has become more dire during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, in Baltimore. “We need to find innovative ways to socially connect with our older, more isolated patients after they suffer through a critical illness. Further research is needed to determine which interventions work best.”
Social isolation has long been recognized as a public health concern that can lead to development of impaired thinking, disability and frailty in older adults.
In the new study, researchers from the University of Maryland in Baltimore and Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., reviewed data from 997 older Americans who were admitted to an ICU in 2011 through 2018.
The investigators used a seven-point score to measure the number and depth of seniors’ interpersonal connections. Every one-point increase in the individuals’ isolation score was associated with a 7% increase in level of disability and a 14% increase in risk of dying within a year.
Study co-author Jason Falvey is an assistant professor of physical therapy and rehabilitation science at the University of Maryland. “Social isolation among older adults has increased substantially during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Falvey said in a university news release.
“Our findings suggest socially isolated older adults are at significantly heightened risk for disability and more than twice the risk of death within a year if they are admitted to the ICU because of a COVID-19 infection or other serious illness,” he added.
More than one in five older Americans lack close social ties, such as meaningful relationships with friends and family, according to the study. Social isolation can hamper their recovery.
The authors said programs that offer virtual social engagement, including on FaceTime and Zoom, show promise. They plan additional studies focused on improving social participation among older adults recovering from serious hospitalizations.
“Despite how common it is, there are very few effective interventions to mitigate social isolation among older adults after a hospitalization,” Falvey said. “This is especially true for the population of older ICU survivors who often have trouble getting out of the house because of declines in strength, walking ability and cognition.”
The findings were recently published online in JAMA Internal Medicine.
The National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults has more on seniors, isolation and resources.
SOURCE: University of Maryland School of Medicine, news release, Sept. 7, 2021