Loneliness shortens lifespan of the elderly

SINGAPORE- Loneliness does not just break hearts, it also significantly increases the risk of earlier death among Singapore's elderly.

And it does not matter if they live by themselves or with families as the risk of dying earlier is the same in each case, according to a nationally representative study of 5,000 seniors here on the ageing process.

"I thought living with your spouse or children would boost your life expectancy as you have someone to talk to and take care of you," said Associate Professor Angelique Chan of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, who led the study, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.

"But you can live with a big family and still feel very lonely. Or you could live alone but feel that you're wanted by family and friends."

Sharing the findings with The Sunday Times, she revealed how in 2009, she and a team of researchers started tracking 5,000 Singaporeans aged 60 and older. Through face-to-face interviews, the seniors were asked about their physical and mental health, family relationships, living arrangements and social networks, among other things.

To measure loneliness, questions such as how often they felt a lack of companionship or felt isolated from others were asked.

Two years later in 2011, the researchers revisited the seniors and found that 447 had died.

The data showed that those who said they were lonely in 2009 were more likely to have died by the end of 2011, said Prof Chan, who is writing a paper on the study.

This shows that feelings of loneliness hasten death "significantly", she added.

More men than women in the research said they were lonely. Living arrangements also had no effect on life expectancy.

Experts told The Sunday Times that the study mirrors research overseas which associated loneliness with earlier death and a decline in basic abilities such as walking.

Negative emotions, such as loneliness and depression, also increase the chances of infection, heart attack or stroke, said Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School dean K. Ranga Krishnan, who was not involved in the study here.

"Your entire body reacts when you feel down. When you feel lonely, you may not want to take medicine or take good care of yourself."

As to why more men than women said they were lonely, Tsao Foundation's Hua Mei Centre for Successful Ageing director Peh Kim Choo said that men tend to find it harder to share their feelings.

They also typically build their lives and identities around their jobs and their role as the family's breadwinner. When they retire, they might feel lost and alone.

Women, however, do not "retire" from their mothering and caregiving roles, she said, unless they fall ill.

Dr Reshma Merchant, a National University Hospital geriatrician, said many of her patients feel lonely despite living with their families as their spouse or close friends had already died.

She said: "They accept loneliness as part of the norm of being old."

With loneliness being linked with the risk of dying earlier, Dr Huang Wanping, senior clinical neuropsychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, believes it is crucial to focus more attention on the mental health of seniors.

To reduce loneliness, families can spend more time with their elders and encourage them to take part in activities, suggested the experts who were interviewed.

Retired cleaner Fan Ah Mai, 84, has never married, depends on government financial aid and lives alone in a one-room rental flat in Bendemeer. Yet Madam Fan, who was not interviewed for Prof Chan's study, is not lonely.

Every weekday, she goes to the Lions Befrienders Senior Activity Centre at the foot of her block to chat with friends and take part in exercise sessions and handicraft classes. Once a week, she helps to prepare meals for other seniors.

"I'm contented," she said.

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