Giving Compass' Take:

• Research from the AARP reveals that social isolated older adults place a higher burden financial burden on Medicare. 

• How can funders help to reduce the number of social isolated older adults? What factors societal and cultural factors play into social isolation for older adults? 

• Learn about programs empowering older adults

A focus on older adults and social isolation is appropriate because people may become more isolated as they age. Loss of social contacts due to retirement, loss of loved ones and friends, and declining health may account for the effects of aging on diminished social connectedness. Increased frailty and disability may also play a role in age-related social isolation. Poor health may lead to older adults’ isolation, or they may be isolated first, which contributes to their poor health outcomes. Both causal pathways may be present.

From policy and public health perspectives, however, this distinction may not matter because interventions would be similar in either case. This paper does not attempt to demonstrate causation, although it identifies potential pathways for further investigation. Social relationships—both quantity and quality— affect mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk. Sociologists have played a central role in establishing the link between social relationships and health outcomes, identifying explanations for this link, and discovering social variation (e.g., by gender and race) at the population level.

Studies show that social relationships have short- and long-term effects on health, for better and for worse, and that these effects emerge in childhood and cascade throughout life to foster cumulative advantage or disadvantage in health. This article describes key research themes in the study of social relationships and health, and it highlights policy implications suggested by this research.