According to a new study reported that more than 15,000 frail elderly identified as being lonely in New Zealand. The study results published in the Australasian Journal on Ageing.

The study findings come from research on InterRai, a universal assessment of elderly living in the community who need home services or are being considered for entry into care. InterRai involves a one-and-a-half-hour assessment covering all aspects of an older person's life. It records ethnic group and living circumstance.

The loneliness study funded by a Government was initiative to improve the lives of older people called the Ageing Well National Science Challenge. The researchers wanted to understand the burden of loneliness in the elderly because it is widely recognised as having a negative impact on health, well-being and mortality.

The team involved 82.7 years (mean age, 61% were female) people for the study and found that 21% of people surveyed were lonely. The ethic group most likely to be lonely was Asian (23%).The researchers found that Pacific Islanders were the least lonely group (17%) and 88.4% identified as European.

Just over half lived with others (50.4%). Of those living with others, 31.7% lived with a spouse or partner only, and 10.9% lived with a child. European were most likely to live alone (52.4% of that ethnic group); Maori (38.1% of that group), Asian (18%) and Pasifika (15.6%). People from non-European ethnic groups were more concentrated in extended family arrangements.

Twice the proportions of older Asian people were lonely when living with others (15.7%) than living alone (7%). Loneliness is well-recognised as having negative impacts on the lives of older people. Interactions with friends and neighbours are important and can help older people maintain their sense of independence and sustain the ability to look after themselves.

In contrast, loneliness can make many health conditions worse, including pain depression, anxiety and respiratory conditions. The high prevalence of loneliness reflects the increasing fragmentation of society. Many people are working long hours and travelling more. Anecdotally, there is a reduction in community networks and neighbourhoods.

Reduction in the community is contributing to the high levels of loneliness reported in vulnerable older people. The study findings provide specific numbers around the problem of loneliness, which is important. The next study will quantify the direct impact on the health system of loneliness, such as hospital admissions.