Effects of Social Isolation On Health Across Different Racial/Ethnic Groups of Older Americans
Social isolation affects more than 44 million Americans every year. Previous studies have found that social isolation is associated with negative health outcomes. This is a particular concern with older adults who have lost social connections available through roles such as work and child rearing. Whether this association differs by race/ethnicity and age is unknown, however. This study examines how the effects of social isolation on physical and mental health differ among Black, Hispanic and White older adults.
Cornwell and Waite (2009) found perceived isolation and social disconnectedness to be two distinct dimensions of social isolation. Building on their work, the author used multi-stage survey data from a nationally-representative sample of 3,005 community-residing adults, age 57-85 from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Tests for association were separately conducted on health indicators by age group, gender, marital status, education, race/ethnicity, perceived isolation, and social disconnectedness. Multivariate logistic regression models were used to test the effects of perceived isolation and social disconnectedness separately and in combination on physical and mental health exclusively and separately, as well as across Black, Hispanic and White older adults.
Results show that among older adults, both perceived isolation and social disconnectedness have distinct effects on physical and mental health, and differ by age grouping, education, and race/ethnicity. Controlling for age group, gender, education, and marital status, both perceived isolation and social disconnectedness are strong predictors of reduced physical health among White older adults, and reduced mental health for both White and Black elders. Social isolation (a combination of perceived isolation and social disconnectedness) has strong negative effects on Whites’ physical health while only social disconnectedness affects physical health of Black older adults. For mental health, when testing social isolation, only the perceived isolation dimension is significant for White and Black models. This tendency is congruent with Cornwell and Waite’s 2009 work, indicating the mediating effect of perceived isolation on the relationship between social disconnectedness and older adults’ mental health.
When comparing the effects of racial/ethnic groups, outcomes differ by race/ethnicity for physical health, but not mental health. Compared to White older adults, Black elders report lower levels of health while Hispanic older adults report higher levels of health, when controlling for perceived isolation and social disconnectedness separately and in combination. These results are consistent with the Hispanic health paradox that has been reported in other research.
Conclusions & Implications:
These findings indicate that social isolation is a strong predictor of health of older adults, but the effects differ by race, ethnicity and physical versus mental health. Due to the small sample size of Hispanic older adults, it was not possible to obtain estimates for some parameters. However, there appears to be a trend that social isolation is negatively associated with health of Hispanic older adults. Despite such limitations, this study suggests some implications for practice, such as more targeted assessment and intervention across racial/ethnic groups of older American adults.