Social isolation causes more hospitalizations for respiratory problems

How does social isolation affect respiratory diseases?

It is precisely through the threat posed by COVID-19 that the risks associated with social isolation increase. A recent study found that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization for older adults due to respiratory problems.

University College London's latest research found that social isolation in older adults is associated with an increased risk of hospitalization for respiratory problems. The results of the study were published in the English language journal "BMJ: Thorax".

Isolation affects our psyche

At the time of the coronavirus, we are all forced to isolate ourselves socially to protect ourselves and other people from COVID-19 disease. Social isolation can have negative effects on the human psyche, which many people are probably already familiar with.

Does isolation lead to respiratory diseases?

It has now been found that older people may be at increased risk of hospitalization for respiratory problems due to social isolation. This risk is independent of other potentially influential factors, such as general health and lifestyle.

Problems with hospitalization due to respiratory problems

Hospital admissions for respiratory diseases generally play an important role in crises due to lack of beds in winter and overcrowding in the emergency room. In the period of COVID-19, these hospital admissions could be particularly problematic and put older people at additional risk.

Huge increase in hospital admissions for respiratory problems

Hospitalization for respiratory problems has increased three times faster in the UK in recent years than hospitalization for any other reason. Such admissions disproportionately affect the socially disadvantaged in society, including older adults, the researchers report.

Hospitalization for isolation

Social isolation and loneliness are associated with hospitalizations in various health conditions, but it has not been clear until now whether socially isolated adults with respiratory diseases could also be at risk. To investigate this risk more closely, the researchers analyzed hospital records and death statistics from 4,478 people who participated in the English Longitudinal Study on Aging (ELSA), a nationally representative long-term study of older adults.

How was the level of social isolation measured?

Social isolation was measured in the study of whether a person lived alone or not (domestic isolation), how much social contact they had with friends and family (social isolation), and how much social engagement they had, including volunteer work, cultural activities and engagement in community groups. The loneliness was then rated on a validated (UCLA) scale.

What factors were also considered?

Information about potentially influential factors was also collected. These included gender, ethnicity, education, household income, basic health conditions, including undiagnosed COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), lifestyle, smoking and physical activity.

Participants were monitored for an average of 9.5 years

The health status of the participants was medically monitored until January 2018 or until death. The average monitoring period was 9.5 years. Around one in ten (11 percent) of the participants were hospitalized for respiratory problems.

What was found?

After considering potentially influential factors, loneliness and the level of social contact with friends and family were not associated with an increased risk of admission. However, when people lived alone or showed little social commitment, this was associated with an increased risk of 32 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

Results are supported by other studies

Although it is only an observational study, the researchers point out that their results are consistent with those of other published studies that associate social isolation and loneliness with poorer health.

Do socially isolated people smoke more?

To explain the relationships they found, the research group suggests that people who are socially isolated are physically inactive and smoke more. It also seems less likely that people will see a doctor the first time they experience symptoms. Physicians may also be more inclined to admit such people to a hospital because of the increased risk of falling among single people.

Prescribe social activities?

Older adults living alone with existing lung diseases could benefit from additional targeted community support. This can be an attempt to reduce hospital admissions. The introduction of social prescription programs can offer opportunities to motivate these people to engage in social activities in the community, the researchers explain. (as)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Feifei Bu, Keir Philip, Daisy Fancourt: Social isolation and loneliness as risk factors for hospital admissions for respiratory disease among older adults, in BMJ: Thorax (published April 21, 2020), Thorax

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