Dissertation proposal: The Relationship between Social Isolation & Health Among Older Adults

Keya Sen

PhD Candidate, Applied Gerontology
Department of Rehabilitation and Health Services

Dissertation Chair: Dr. Gayle Prybutok

Committee Members: Dr. Stan Ingman, Dr. William Senn, Dr. Victor Prybutok.

Dissertation Proposal Abstract


Social isolation (SI) is defined as the absence of meaningful contact with individuals or communities (Beneito-Montagut et al., 2018; Cattan et al., 2011). Many older adults at age 65 are not physically active enough to engage in activities that facilitate social interaction (Smith, 2017) and live far from loved ones or have no living relatives nearby to provide support. Others move from familiar and supportive communities to be closer to children as they age, limiting social support. Klinenberg (2016) found that older adults are isolated either because they never had children, their spouse is dead, or they’ve had interpersonal conflicts with the loved ones.

Social isolation has a potentially negative impact on longevity, with negative health consequences. Isolation intensifies the risk of mental health issues such as depression and aggression exacerbating into cognitive decline and even dementia. The proven positive influence of social networks on overall health and meaningful relationships suggests that people with multifaceted social connections live longer (Cohen and Janicki-Deverts, 2009). Once a negative self-perception is created, the individual is at risk for losing the motivation to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015). Research shows that small social relationships or networks are valuable components of elderly health and contribute towards the goal of socialization.

This research will increase our understanding of the relationship between social isolation and overall health. Social isolation can be reduced through physical fitness or interest-based programs that foster and sustain social skills, and create opportunities for social interaction (Gierveld, Tilburg & Dykstra, 2016). Literature shows that long periods of alone leisure time are related to reduced life satisfaction and perceived social isolation (Li & Tilahun, 2017).

This research addresses the gap in understanding the relationship between social isolation and overall health through the conduct of three studies.

Essay 1 attempts to understand the underlying factors that are responsible for the relationship between overall health and social inclusion. Essay I is a systematic literature review with implications for future research that explores the mechanisms leading to social isolation, loneliness, and reduced social integration. A review of the relationships between social isolation and cognitive decline, social isolation and psychological decline, and the relationship between organized community programs and overall health will be conducted.

Essay 2 examines the social determinants of health that are significantly correlated with overall health using multiple regression. We attempt to find the correlations between participatory activities, the importance of participation, mobility, technology use and community on the overall health of older adults. The study will use multiple regression to identify the role of these variables in reducing social isolation and improving overall health over and above well-known variables, covariates, and control variables.

Essay 3 is completed and has been accepted for publication in Activities, Adaptation, and Aging. This essay demonstrates the value of a community based senior exercise program in reducing social isolation and improving overall health. Essay 3 is a qualitative research study based on semi structured interviews that evaluate the effectiveness of a unique community-based senior exercise program that fosters social integration and improves overall health for the elderly. Semi structured interviews were conducted with program participants to collect demographics, and information about member engagement, attitude toward social interaction, motivation towards socially inclusive health behaviors, choice of age friendly use of environment, social interaction, and self-efficacy based on prior literature.


This dissertation contributes to the body of knowledge by filling the gaps in understanding the factors associated with social isolation. It also gives valuable insight to researchers in the field of applied gerontology. For “active  aging” to be possible, mechanisms that enhance the quality of life like facilitated social interactions, and physical or leisure time activities (Dickens et al.,2011) can be accomplished through the availability of physical fitness or interest based programs that enhance self-esteem and create a supportive and caring social network for senior adults (Hemingway & Jack, 2013).


Beneito-Montagut, R., Cassián-Yde, N., & Begueria, A. (2018). What do we know about the relationship between internet-mediated interaction and social isolation and loneliness in later life?. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults19(1), 14-30.

Cattan, M., Newell, C., Bond, J., & White, M. (2003). Alleviating social isolation and loneliness among older people. International Journal of Mental Health Promotion5(3), 20-30.

Cohen, S., & Janicki-Deverts, D. (2009). Can we improve our physical health by altering our social networks?. Perspectives on Psychological Science4(4), 375-378.

De Jong Gierveld, J., Van Tilburg, T., & Dykstra, P. (2016). Loneliness and Social Isolation. Vangelisti Anita & Perlman Daniel (eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships.


Dickens, A. P., Richards, S. H., Hawton, A., Taylor, R. S., Greaves, C. J., Green, C., ... & Campbell, J. L. (2011). An evaluation of the effectiveness of a community mentoring service for socially isolated older people: a controlled trial. BMC Public Health11(1), 218.

Hemingway, A., & Jack, E. (2013). Reducing social isolation and promoting well-being in older people. Quality in ageing and older adults14(1), 25-35.

Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for mortality: a meta-analytic review. Perspectives on Psychological Science10(2), 227-237.

Klinenberg, E. (2016). Social isolation, loneliness, and living alone: Identifying the risks for public health. American journal of public health106(5), 786.

Li, M., & Tilahun, N. (2017). Time use, disability, and mobility of older americans. Transportation Research Record2650(1), 58-65.

Smith, T. (2017). “On their own”: social isolation, loneliness and chronic musculoskeletal pain in older adults. Quality in Ageing and Older Adults18(2), 87-92.


Friday, September 27, 2019 - 03:00pm to 05:00pm
Business Leadership Building, Room 314