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Am Fam Physician. 2021;104(1):85-87

Author disclosure: No relevant financial affiliations.

Case Scenario

A 75-year-old patient, H.B., is having a telemedicine visit with their family physician for follow-up of end-stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, osteoarthritis, and chronic fatigue syndrome. H.B. is homebound because of dyspnea, chronic pain, and limited functional status and resides with a family member who is minimally involved in H.B.'s care. For three years, H.B. has rarely left home because minimal activity sets them back functionally for weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened H.B.'s isolation because they are afraid of being exposed to the virus. H.B. has refused all in-home support, although they actively participate in online chat groups. What is the impact of social isolation and loneliness on health-related outcomes in patients, and what interventions can be used by family physicians?

Commentary

Social isolation and loneliness are increasingly recognized as complex clinical and public health problems, particularly in older adults, leading to adverse mental and physical health outcomes.1 The COVID-19 pandemic has led to physical distancing policies, which have exacerbated loneliness and social isolation.2 Social isolation is an objective absence or lack of social contact with others, whereas loneliness is defined as an undesirable subjective experience of unfulfilled social contacts and/or needs.3 The terms are distinct, although they are often used interchangeably, and both have similar health implications. Social isolation and loneliness are increasingly common in older age groups. National surveys report that approximately one in four community-dwelling older adults reports social isolation,4 and 22% to 35% report feeling lonely.1 Several factors are associated with social isolation in older adults, including being unmarried, having chronic illness, and lower reported socioeconomic status.4,5

Given the high prevalence, family physicians should consider the health consequences associated with social isolation and loneliness in older adults.6 A growing body of research demonstrates a strong link between social isolation and loneliness with adverse outcomes. All-cause mortality is increased to the same extent as that for smoking or obesity. The incidence of cardiovascular disease and mental health disorders is significantly increased, and socially isolated individuals report a higher prevalence of tobacco product usage and other deleterious health behaviors.1,3,5,7 Individuals who are socially isolated and/or lonely also report higher rates of health service utilization that may be because of greater disease occurrence and/or increased outreach provided by health service agencies.1 Nevertheless, these individuals report decreased adherence with medical advice.3,8

IDENTIFYING LONELINESS AND SOCIAL ISOLATION

Family physicians recognize the importance of loneliness as a condition that affects their patients but are often limited in their ability to reliably identify affected patients.9 The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force does not have a recommendation about screening for loneliness and social isolation; however, a recent report from the National Academy of Medicine provides guidance.1 Universal screening is not currently indicated because of the paucity of evidence-based interventions; however, physicians may consider assessments using validated tools, such as the Berkman-Syme10 or UCLA Loneliness Scale.1,11 Screening may be indicated in at-risk patients, for example, in those who have experienced a challenging life event such as the loss of a loved one, those who disclose limited social networks, or those who have frequent health care use.1 When patients at risk have been identified, physicians should consider discussing the adverse health outcomes associated with social isolation and loneliness with their patients and caregivers and investigate for underlying health or functional limitations that may be contributing factors.1

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Case scenarios are written to express typical situations that family physicians may encounter; authors remain anonymous. Send scenarios to afpjournal@aafp.org. Materials are edited to retain confidentiality.

This series is coordinated by Caroline Wellbery, MD, associate deputy editor.

A collection of Curbside Consultation published in AFP is available at https://www.aafp.org/afp/curbside.

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