A new study adds to the growing body of research examining the effects of social isolation on health. The findings, published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology, show that older people with very few family members or friends are less likely to get cataract surgery, a procedure with broad implications for health.
A cataract is a medical condition in which the lens of the eye becomes progressively opaque, resulting in blurry vision. It is one of the most common and treatable causes of vision impairment in the United States. Cataract surgery can improve one’s quality of life, reduce the risk of falls and cut cognitive decline among older adults.
The researchers from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center believe that strong social networks may play a significant role in the likelihood of older adults opting for cataract surgery. Not only can family members motivate older adults to take care of their fading vision, but they can also can help them get the care they need.
“It may get to a point that it takes people around them to speak up about their changing vision,” said study author Brian Stagg, M.D., a Kellogg ophthalmologist and health services researcher at the University of Michigan.
For the study, the researchers looked at 9,760 adults over the age of 65 with Medicare benefits. They found that those with none, one or two family members had 40-percent lower odds of receiving cataract surgery than adults with three or more family members. Data came from the National Health and Aging Trends Study.
The new study by Kellogg Eye Center is consistent with a trend in health research that examines the harmful impact of social isolation on health.
“A nuanced understanding of the impact of social support networks is important to develop as we implement strategies to improve access to cataract surgery for a rapidly growing older population,” Stagg said.
There are several ways to help older patients who may not have a sufficient social network. For example, primary care doctors and ophthalmologists may need to ask their older patients if transportation and support is available after the procedure. A social worker could help navigate care, too, say the authors of the study.
According to the findings, friends, spouses or partners did not influence an older person’s decision to have cataract surgery as much as their adult children. This suggests that an adult child who regularly visits an older parent might detect vision changes that others have not noticed.