Predictors and consequences of loneliness in older adults and the power of positive emotions

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Newall, Nancy E.
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Social isolation and loneliness are problems that affect the quality of life of many older adults. As the proportion of older people increases in Canada and other nations, studying factors that could improve the quality of life of older people becomes even more crucial. Two studies were conducted drawing on longitudinal data (1996 and 2001) from the Aging in Manitoba Project (Study 1 N = 760) and the Successful Aging Study 2003 (Study 2 N = 228). The main objective of Study 1 was to identify the characteristics of older individuals who differed in their loneliness trajectories over time, allowing for a comparison of those who became lonely, overcame loneliness, were persistently lonely, and were persistently not lonely. A discriminant function analysis examined the social, demographic, physical, and psychological factors as potential discriminators of the loneliness trajectories. When compared to those who were neither lonely at time 1 or time 2, the most important discriminators of persistent loneliness were: living alone, being in poor health, and having low perceptions of control. These predictors were found to be more important than people’s friendships or social activities, highlighting the complexity of loneliness in later life. Study 2 examined the longitudinal relationships between loneliness, health, physical activity, and mortality, and tested Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory that positive emotions (happiness) might serve to “undo” the detrimental effects of negative emotions like loneliness. Regression analyses showed that loneliness longitudinally predicted health, physical activity, and mortality, underscoring the importance of socioemotional variables to health. Moreover, happiness moderated the relationships between loneliness and physical activity and loneliness and mortality. Thus, in support of Fredrickson’s hypothesis, results suggested that happiness has the power to “undo” the detrimental effects of loneliness on physical activity and even on mortality. Being happy may indeed offset the negative consequences of being lonely. Based on these two studies, it was concluded that future interventions could target positive emotions, perceptions of control, and loneliness as ways of ultimately enhancing the lifespan, healthspan, and wellspan of older adults.
loneliness, positive emotions, older adults, longitudinal