The headline figure of the fifth wave of data from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) survey was “One in six over-50s are socially isolated”. Published on the 15th of October, this was quoted across national press as well as by Paul Burstow MP at a meeting to inspire action in his constituency, Sutton and Cheam, to tackle isolation and loneliness in older age.

In Sutton this week, Paul Burstow’s roundtable used the recent ELSA data and other research as a starting point, but ended by a planning a practical partnership project between different sectors and organisations working in the area.

This meeting illustrated well how national, longitudinal research on ageing and street-level, practical activities to tackle loneliness should be brought together more often: combining the latest research with neighbourhood-level activity is exactly the way to tackle an issue as complex as loneliness.

ELSA on loneliness and isolation

The ELSA report includes a variety of longitudinal data (spanning five “waves” of data collection, with each wave lasting two years), as well as analysis and discussion by the interdisciplinary team of ELSA researchers.

Although the whole data set covers a range of issues related to ageing, the launch event and subsequent press this week focused on the recent results on loneliness and isolation. This data adds to a growing evidence base on the relationship between loneliness and health, and the factors that can prevent, alleviate or increase it.

For example, analysis of “social detachment” in most recent ELSA wave found:

  • 1 in 20 adults over 50 are “detached” from social networks
  • In 2010–11, women were more likely to be detached from leisure activities than men, but less likely to be detached social networks
  • Older adults who are “single, separated or divorced, or widowed were more likely to be detached from three or more domains” than older adults living as part of a couple
  • Older adults with the lowest income, poor health and low education were more likely to be socially isolated
  • Limited access to private or public transport caused older adults to be more likely to not take part in “civic participation”, leisure activities and cultural engagements

A second paper looked at the impact of psychological wellbeing on physical health, concluding:

  • Measurements of psychological wellbeing in 2004-5 could predict “onset of disability, slower walking speed, impaired self-rated health and the incidence of coronary heart disease in 2010-11”
  • Those identified as having a greater enjoyment of life in 2002-3 were more likely to be alive nine years later, with the risk of dying being three times larger for people reporting lowest enjoyment of life (this was independent of other factors including age, wealth, health and education)

What more does this tell us about loneliness and isolation?

The latest ELSA results, and additional analysis by members of the team, improve our understanding of the issue of loneliness and isolation in England in a number of ways:

  • Measuring psychological wellbeing could help identify those at greater risk of physical health problems, and may need social care support sooner
  • It reinforces our understanding that wealth and health are big risk factors for vulnerability to loneliness and isolation
  • Highlighted education as another factor that can contribute to isolation, or staying connected, in later life
  • Again identifies divorced or separated people, those with a chronic illness or disability and people without good transport links as at greater risk of “social detachment”

Using ELSA to tackle loneliness in our communities

These findings, and the larger ELSA data set, can be utilised in a number of ways to help tackle loneliness at a community level.

For example, in light of the wave 5 findings, the ELSA team recommended directing public health interventions relating to loneliness to less wealthy and less healthy older people. They also recommended improving access to public and private transport for people aged over 50 to alleviate social isolation.

The ELSA data is also useful for local NHS and councils who are looking to measure prevalence of loneliness, and monitor benefit of their services. As ELSA data is released every two years, local authorities – and the newly formed health and wellbeing boards – can use the data as a national data set to benchmark their own measurements against.

By identifying a range of factors that increase vulnerability to loneliness, the ELSA data can also help local government and the voluntary sector to find the most lonely people – and to make sure they make information available at the right time, in the right place (to the right age group)

The example of Sutton

This week in Sutton the importance of research evidence was highlighted repeatedly as vital for choosing the right starting point for new projects to help the most isolated. Each group represented at the meeting had its own way of identifying those at risk of loneliness, but there was still an opportunity to pull together their activities making sure that no gaps exist in Sutton.

For example, the group asked whether newly retired men were being helped, and did not know who could help the newly bereaved to stay in touch with their friends at a time of intensive need.

Many places, like Sutton, are tackling loneliness at three levels:

  • In their strategic planning (through their health and wellbeing board)
  • By coordinating neighbourhoods (across sectors, organisations and services)
  • At an individual level (through traditional care and support services)

All three levels of tackling loneliness, at the levels of strategic, neighbourhood and individual, should be based on intelligence such as research from ELSA and other institutions.