Humans are naturally social, and high-quality social relationships can lead to longer and healthier lives. However, social isolation is a growing public health problem that impacts these benefits (Klinenberg, 2016).  Social isolation is defined as a lack of connections with others that can lead to loneliness. Loneliness is the subjective feeling of being alone, even if a person is in regular contact with, or physically around others (Centers for Disease Control, n.d.). Therefore, a person can feel lonely without being socially or physically isolated.

Relevance to Older Adults


Social isolation is linked with health risks for adults over the age of 50. Older adults are at higher risk for social isolation due to chronic illness, a decline in physical health and/or deaths of family and/or friends in their social networks (Klinenberg, 2016). While there is no precise way to measure social isolation, it has been linked to increases in risk of dementia, heart disease, and stroke (Centers for Disease Control, n.d.). Research on social isolation has also shown that it has worse health effects than obesity and impacts health similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day (Davis, 2020).  The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening the social isolation issue and is especially affecting older adults. The increased infection risk for older adults, stay at home orders, and physical distancing measures contribute to this rise.

Risk Factors

Several risk factors can contribute to social isolation. As stated earlier, older adults face a higher risk of isolation due to smaller social networks and less frequent contact with family and friends.

Social and Cultural Factors (NASEM, 2020)

  • Communication or Comprehension Difficulties
    • Immigrants and other minority populations who have communication barriers are at increased risk for social isolation.
    • Communication barriers, such as being monolingual in Japanese, may create fewer social ties and decrease social integration.
  • Social Networks
    • Close relationships with family and friends can provide social, economic, and physical support to an individual.
    • The quality of social connections is more important than the number of connections a person has.

Health Factors (NASEM, 2020)

  • Chronic Diseases
    • Conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and chronic pain can be accompanied by lower mobility, and less energy. As a result, this creates a reduction of social activity, which can then lead to social isolation.
    • These conditions can be further compounded by social isolation and worsen health outcomes.
  • Limited Mobility
    • May cause individuals to avoid social situations or miss out on social opportunities due to lack of access.
  • Sensory Impairment
    • Individuals with hearing loss or declining vision may avoid social interaction due to these conditions. important than the number of connections a person has.

Lifestyle Factors (NASEM, 2020)

  • Retirement
    • This may result in changes in income that limit an individual’s ability to go out and interact with others.
    • Being employed provides a convenient social environment that may be lost following retirement.
  • Transportation
    • When an individual is no longer able to drive, transportation limitations can impact their ability to socialize with others.
    • Social relationships may be strained, and support networks may decrease due to lack of social interactions.
  • Living Conditions (Klinenberg, 2016)
    • Lack of access to public spaces and community organizations can increase the risk of isolation.
    • Having access to these spaces can promote social interaction.

Addressing Social Isolation

There are different ways to manage and avoid social isolation, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Understand Your Own Risk
    • Take AARP’s Connect2Affect risk assessment to measure your risk of social isolation.
  • Make a Plan (Tan, 2020)
    • Talk to family and friends and make a plan to stay in touch regularly.
      • This can include weekly phone calls or video calls.
      • Keep up with friends during virtual game night or virtual dinners.
    • Communicating often helps people stay connected.
  • Ask for Help (Tan, 2020)
    • The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting everyone. Asking for help and keeping in contact can provide social interactions for both parties.
    • Use AARP’s Connect2Affect program which provides resources to address social isolation and a risk assessment.
  • Maintain a Schedule (Davis, 2020)
    • Following a schedule can combat feelings of isolation.
    • Make time for exercise, hobbies, and other distractions that are not related to the pandemic.
  • Stay Involved (NASEM, 2020)
    • Being part of a religious or community organization can maintain a person’s ties to social networks.
    • Even in a virtual setting, social connections and support can be found and provided at these different organizations.
isolated older adult
Social Isolation

While social isolation has been a growing issue for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased its prevalence. On a more positive note, many people are now aware of what social isolation is and the negative effects it can have on an individual. There are various ways to combat social isolation. In addition, if you are not socially isolated, reach out to someone who may be isolated or at higher risk for social isolation. Regularly calling or checking in on friends and family can help everyone feel more connected and engaged, which can help address and minimize social isolation.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. n.d. Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Serious Health Conditions. Retrieved from

Davis, M. 2020. Pandemic Has Created Loneliness Epidemic, New Report Shows. Retrieved from

Klinenberg, E. 2016. Social Isolation, Loneliness, and Living Alone: Identifying the Risks for Public Health. American Journal of Public Health, 106(5), 786-787. Retrieved from

NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine). 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Retrieved from

Tan, E. 2020. How to Fight the Social Isolation of Coronavirus. Retrieved from