Recovering in Isolation


If you’ve ever been admitted to an intensive care unit (ICU) or witnessed a loved one experience a medical crisis, who was there to help in the aftermath? Having a support network is an essential part of recovery due to the emotional and physical burdens that can result from a traumatic health event. Estimates in the U.S. suggest more than 20% of adults aged 65 and older lack close social ties, making the elderly population particularly vulnerable to social isolation.

Older adults have higher rates of death within 3 years after ICU admission. Jason Falvey and colleagues asked whether social isolation impacts post-ICU survival in older adults age 65 and older. They analyzed data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS) collected between May 2011 – November 2018. The study participants answered annual survey questions about their social network, such as having a live-in partner or visiting friends regularly. Social isolation was rated on a scale from 0 to 6, with 0 being the most social and 6 being the most isolated.

The graph shows a dramatic decrease in survival among participants with the highest social isolation scores. The most severely isolated patients (dotted black line) had a 119% higher risk of death within one year of ICU admission compared to the most socially-networked patients (solid black line). These findings emphasize the importance of social support in the wake of an ICU experience.

These findings may be particularly compelling in the aftermath of Covid-19 as the pandemic forced more elders into social isolation than ever before. Screening for social isolation in older adults during hospital admission, ICU survivor support groups and exercise buddy programs are some potential interventions to provide fundamental human connection to those in need in the aftermath of serious illness later in life.

Databyte via Falvey JR, Cohen AB, O’Leary JR, Leo-Summers L, Murphy TE, Ferrante LE. Association of Social Isolation With Disability Burden and 1-Year Mortality Among Older Adults With Critical Illness. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2021.