A recent comprehensive study involving 9,430 adults aged 50 and above has illuminated a significant correlation between loneliness and symptoms of insomnia. The research sheds light on the intricate interplay between emotional well-being and sleep quality, emphasizing the potential impact of addressing loneliness in promoting healthier aging.

Published in the journal Psychiatry Research, the study delves into the intricate relationship between loneliness and insomnia symptoms, which encompass difficulties falling and remaining asleep, early morning awakenings, and nonrestorative sleep.

Loneliness is believed to contribute to insomnia through diverse pathways, including heightened stress, anxiety, and increased vigilance. The study underscores the potential role of loneliness mitigation in enhancing sleep patterns and overall well-being.

The research, which utilized data from the Health and Retirement Study—a comprehensive survey encompassing middle-aged and older adults across the United States—revealed a noteworthy finding. Over a span of six years, 16% of the participants experienced at least one symptom of insomnia. This revelation carries profound implications as sleep disturbances are acknowledged risk factors for cardiovascular ailments and memory impairment.

To evaluate the degree of social isolation and loneliness, the researchers employed the Steptoe’s Social Isolation Index and the revised UCLA Loneliness Scale. These metrics gauged respondents’ perceptions of statements like “I feel left out” and “I have nobody to talk to” in the context of their lives.

Senior author Bei Wu, a distinguished figure in global health and a professor at NYU Nursing, underscores the differentiation between social isolation and loneliness. While the former pertains to objective measures of limited social interactions, the latter centers around the subjective perception of lacking desired social connections.

Wu elaborates, “Loneliness represents a perceived discrepancy between one’s actual and desired social relationships… Loneliness was linked with sleep problems, while social isolation wasn’t after we adjusted for health indicators.”

As individuals age, the propensity for social isolation and feelings of loneliness tends to increase. Wu notes that factors such as loss of family, friends, and work connections contribute to this trend. Mobility limitations and reduced opportunities for community engagement also heighten the risk of loneliness among older adults.

The findings resonate with the essence of human nature—the need for social and emotional connections. Wu emphasizes, “We’re born to be socially connected and emotionally connected. Our relationships support our well-being.”

To mitigate the potential impact of loneliness on sleep quality, the study suggests maintaining social connections through various avenues. Engaging in social activities like volunteering, joining clubs, participating in support groups, or leveraging technology-based interventions such as video chats and companion robots can contribute to fostering emotional bonds and potentially alleviating insomnia symptoms.

The study, supported by the National Institutes of Health, underscores the enduring relevance of addressing social isolation and loneliness, particularly in the context of sleep health and well-being among older adults.

By Impact Lab