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Social Isolation and Anxiety in Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment

The COVID-19 pandemic has focused worldwide attention on a concurrent public health crisis—social isolation. Older adults, particularly those with cognitive impairment, may be particularly vulnerable to ill effects from social isolation.

In a new study, Yeji Hwang, a PhD student in Penn Nursing’s Department of Biobehavioral Health Sciences (BHS), and Nancy A. Hodgson, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Claire M. Fagin Leadership Professor in Nursing and BHS Chair, find that older adults living with cognitive impairment, such as dementia and mild cognitive impairment, feel lonely and anxious when socially alienated.

Older persons with cognitive impairment may be at greater risk of experiencing the negative health effects of social isolation as they gradually lose their memory, their orientation to time and place, and their connection to other people. As it becomes more difficult for them to recognize people and go out, their social interactions with friends and family decrease. However, until now, social isolation and its psychological outcomes among older adults with cognitive impairment have received little attention. Because humans feel anxiety when socially isolated, the researchers analyzed whether this is the same case for older adults with cognitive impairment.

The study analyzes 1,343 community-residing older adults with cognitive impairment using a national dataset to assess the relationship between social isolation and anxiety, and finds that people with cognitive impairment also experienced social isolation and anxiety, just like the general population. In addition, anxiety is related to higher levels of loneliness, which contributes to feelings of greater social isolation, including feeling a lack of companionship and feeling left out.

This story originally appeared on Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics’ website. To read the full version, please click here.