WASHINGTON – More lonely elderly patients suffered from health symptoms and received very aggressive end of life care than nonlonely elderly patients, according to a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine.
“Loneliness and social isolation are very common problems, especially in older Americans, and inflict about 30%-40% of older Americans. But while we know that this may have implications for their quality [of] life and may actually lead to premature death, we know very little about the end of life experience,” said Nauzley Abedini, MD, MSc, a hospitalist in internal medicine at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
The study sought to determine the association between loneliness and end of life experience as measured by symptom burden, intensity of care, and advance care planning in adults. The pooled cohort study used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to analyze older Americans (aged 50 years or more) who died between 2004 and 2014. Investigators conducted postmortem “exit interviews” with the next of kin after each participant’s death. There were 2,896 participants included in the survey. Of these participants, 34% (942) were lonely; the remaining 1,954 of elderly adults were classified as nonlonely.
Loneliness was defined using the three-item Revised University of California, Los Angeles, Loneliness Scale score from a decedent’s last HRS interview prior to death. These items included feeling left out, feeling isolated, and lacking companionship. Investigators used this data to create a loneliness variable on previously established cutpoints for “lonely” and “nonlonely” participants. The data was used from the most recent survey prior to death.
Results showed more lonely older adults suffered from health symptoms in the last year of life, compared with nonlonely older adults (69.1% vs. 59.5%; odds ratio, 1.52; 95% confidence interval, 1.30-1.78). These symptoms included being troubled by pain, having difficulty breathing, experiencing severe fatigue, and having periodic confusion.
Patients with loneliness associated with intensity of health care at the end of life were more likely to die in a nursing home than at home, compared with nonlonely adults (OR, 1.68; 95% CI, 1.25-2.27). The lonely patients also were more likely to use life support during their last 2 years of life (OR, 1.41; 95% CI, 1.16-1.70).
“For clinicians, we need to identify end of life as an additional vulnerable time for people who are lonely. Currently, most of our interventions in terms of screening for loneliness are in the outpatient setting, but I would argue that working in hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, and community organizations, where these folks are living and dying, would be useful places to screen for this,” Dr. Abedini said.
The authors had no disclosures.