Research published by the Health Foundation to look at the health care needs of older adults finds that people aged 65 and older who live alone are 50% more likely to go to A&E than those who live with someone else. They are also at increased risk of being admitted to hospital as an inpatient. 

Older adults living alone are also more likely to visit their GP.  Around one fifth (21%) of older people living alone visit their GP at least once a month, compared with 14% of older people living with someone else.

Older people living alone have more long-term conditions. Nearly half (49.8%) of patients aged 65 or older living alone have three or more long-term conditions, compared to 42.2% of older people living with others.

The findings also show that more than 1 in 4 older people living alone have a mental health condition, compared to 1 in 5 people living with others.

The focus of this study is on older adults, aged 65 and over, as this group are recognised as being at increased risk of social isolation, a factor known to increase risk of poor health. Existing research has shown poor social relationships can increase the likelihood of stroke by over a third (32%).

While the study finds a link between living alone and increased use of health care services it is unclear exactly why this is. It could be that older people living alone are more unwell due to loneliness, known to negatively impact health. Another possible explanation is that people living alone may require more assistance from the NHS when they fall ill due to a lack of immediate support at home.

The research shows that by tackling factors that impact people living on their own, such as loneliness and social isolation, there is the potential to reduce pressure on A&E departments and GP services. This is particularly relevant heading into winter when services are overstretched.

Kathryn Dreyer, Principal Data Analyst at the Health Foundation said: 

‘Today’s findings underline the fact that older people living alone have poorer health than those living with others, as well as more intensive health care needs. With the number of older people living alone set to continue to grow, more needs to be done to help people stay healthy and to offer more support and care in the community. 

‘Currently one in three older people in the UK live alone, at increased risk of social isolation and loneliness which is known to be as harmful as being obese and can increase the likelihood of depression and heart disease. While some people may choose to live on their own, others may not have a choice, for example when their partners die or their family live far away.   

‘An estimated 9 million people across the UK, almost a fifth of the population, report feeling lonely, greatly increasing their risk of poor health. We welcome the support for social prescribing set out by the government already and hope to see further measures to address social isolation and loneliness in the forthcoming NHS long term plan.’  

Laura Alcock-Ferguson, Executive Director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, said:

‘We welcome the findings of this research which highlights the unique challenges faced by older people living alone. There are over 2.2 million people aged 75 and over living alone in Great Britain – an increase of almost a quarter over the past 20 years. With a fast-ageing population, this is set to grow.

‘Urgent preventative action is needed to meet the needs of this group. We welcome the Health Foundation’s recommendations for extra support for isolated older adults. Loneliness, living alone and poor social connections are as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It is no surprise that older people living alone will be visiting their GP more and are more likely to end up in A&E. We also know that some older people visit the GP simply to have someone to talk to.

‘Our research found that for £1 invested in an effective loneliness intervention, up to £3 can be saved in health costs, which could represent significant savings for the NHS.’

Naomi Phillips, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the British Red Cross, said:

‘This research adds to a growing body of evidence about the negative impact of loneliness on the lives of many older people and our health and care systems. It is critical for Government and the NHS to work in partnership with communities to find practical ways to tackle loneliness and prevent people of all ages from becoming chronically lonely, which we know can have a devastating impact on their mental and physical health.’

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