Loneliness and Social Isolation Linked to Poor Sleep Quality in Older Adults

man sleeping
man sleeping
This study points to potential differences in how social isolation and loneliness may affect — and reflect — health and wellbeing for older adults.

Older adults who experience social isolation and loneliness also have more disrupted sleep according to a study for the Sleep Research Society published in Sleep. Lonely adults reported more insomnia symptoms and shorter sleep duration, while those with social isolation spent more time in bed.

University of Chicago researchers analyzed sleep study results from older adults who had also participated in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project (NSHAP), a national study of community-dwelling adults born between 1920 and 1947 (aged 62 to 90). Participants in the current study had also participated in a sleep study in 2010/2011. The sleep study included a sleep log, survey questions, and a wrist actigraph.

Participants wore the actigraph for 72 hours. The questionnaire asked about the frequency of various sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep and waking up too early, among others. Variables were combined with a reverse-coded question about how rested they feel in the morning. The researchers used this information to create an insomnia symptom score.

The NSHAP survey measured loneliness using the UCLA Loneliness Scale. Researchers measured social isolation using an expanded version of the NSHAP social disconnectedness score. The researchers also looked at demographic and health variables.

Actigraph measures of sleep disruption — wake after sleep onset (WASO) and percent sleep — were associated with greater social isolation. Standard deviation increase in social isolation was associated with an approximately .13 standard deviation increase in WASO [P < .01, 95% CI: 0.05, 0.21]. The association also indicated more disrupted sleep [β = -0.11; P < .01, 95% CI: -0.18, -0.03].

Loneliness was also tied with significant WASO and percent sleep disruption. An additional point on the loneliness scale was associated with about a 0.08 standard deviation increase in WASO [P <.02, 95% CI: 0.01, 0.15]. Sleep disruption: [β = -0.07; P < .03, 95% CI: -0.13, -0.01].

The researchers cannot infer causal direction from the cross-sectional data. The loneliness measure only represents one facet of loneliness rather the 20-item UCLA Loneliness Scale’s three facets. Also the sleep survey did not have a time frame, while other measures used the 72-hour time period.

“This study affirms the value of diverse sleep measures to assess this complicated multidimensional behavior and illustrates that loneliness and social isolation are associated with different dimensions of sleep experience,” the researchers concluded. “Our study points to potential differences in how social isolation and loneliness may affect — and reflect — health and wellbeing at older ages.”


Benson J, McSorley V, Hawkley L, Lauderdale D. Associations of loneliness and social isolation with actigraph and self-reported sleep quality in a national sample of older adults. Sleep. 10.1093/sleep/zsaa140.