Reducing loneliness in later life

Reducing loneliness in later life

A recent study by Dawn et al. (2018) highlighted the major health concern of loneliness for the elderly and especially for those who are widowed. Loneliness is associated with a decrease in physical and psychological health (Coyle & Dugan, 2012). According to Holt-Lunstad, Smith & Layton (2010), mortality risk associated with lack of strong social relationships is similar to smoking, approximately double that of obesity and quadruple that of exposure to air pollution.

Dawn et al. (2018) found that widows experienced significantly higher levels of loneliness than those who continued to be married. However, the study revealed that widows who volunteered 2< hours per week had similar levels of loneliness to individuals continuing to marry and also volunteering at a similar intensity.  

Volunteering appears to influence health through psychosocial pathways like a positive emotional exchange, associated lifestyle factors (increased physical, cognitive, and social activity), self-esteem and purpose in life, as well as through stress-buffering effects that moderate the influence of stressors on health (Matz-Costa, Carr, McNamara & James, 2016).

Interestingly Dawn et al. (2018) also pointed out that not all volunteering is the same. Working and religious organisations were shown to have benefits for younger volunteers, however, not so for the elderly. It is believed that due to the individual's ages they are not assigned as meaningful or important tasks reducing the mutually beneficial outcome.

This study does a great job of highlighting the risk of loneliness as well as a direction to reduce this risk. Volunteering is great for all ages but perhaps it could even be lifesaving for those who have lost a close loved one in later life.  


Coyle, C. E., & Dugan, E. (2012). Social isolation, loneliness and health among older adults. Journal of Aging and Health, 24(8), 1346–1363. doi:10.1177/0898264312460275

Dawn C Carr, Ben Lennox Kail, Christina Matz-Costa, Yochai Z Shavit; Does Becoming A Volunteer Attenuate Loneliness Among Recently Widowed Older Adults?, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Volume 73, Issue 3, 2 March 2018, Pages 501–510,

Holt-Lunstad , J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7, e1000316. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316

Matz-Costa, C., Carr, D. C., McNamara, T. K., & James, J. B. (2016). Physical, cognitive, social, and emotional mediators of activity involvement and health in later life. Research on Aging , 38, 791–815. doi:10.1177/0164027515606182