Medicare Spends More on Socially Isolated Older Adults

Socially isolated older adults are at greater risk for poor health and death than their well-connected counterparts. However, information is lacking on whether social isolation among older adults affects health care spending. AARP Policy Institute and Standford University’s Center on the Demography and Economics of Health and Aging partnered to complete a study looking at social isolation and Medicare spending. This study is the first to examine whether social isolation also affects health care spending among older adults. By examining Medicare spending data, this study found that a lack of social contacts among older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional federal spending annually.

The following are some policy implications that federal and state governments, in partnership with private sector actors, should consider:
•• Fund the development of a valid and reliable tool to screen beneficiaries for social isolation, keeping in mind that marital status and widowhood are not necessarily reliable markers of social isolation.
•• Fund public–private partnerships to identify and test interventions—including health prevention and promotion activities—for social isolation that are culturally competent and that consider differences in socioeconomic status, marital status, mental and functional health status, and chronic illness status. Interventions should explore the desirability and feasibility of using technology to reduce isolation among older adults.
•• After a valid and reliable screening tool is developed and well-tested interventions are identified, require providers to use the tool during the Welcome to Medicare and annual wellness visits.
•• Elevate the discussion of social isolation in the public health community.
•• Take steps to ensure that social isolation becomes a part of the lexicon of social determinants of health by, for example, including it as a social determinant in official documents published by the federal government.