Medicare Spends More on Socially Isolated Older Adults

Social isolation—defined as a lack of meaningful contacts with others—is a significant risk factor for poor health status and increased mortality. Older adults may be especially at risk for social isolation because they are more likely to have experiences— like the loss of friends and loved ones, or the onset of health problems—that increase their need for a strong foundation of robust social relationships. Although it seems logical that older adults who lack meaningful relationships would have higher health care spending, no studies have examined this issue. Therefore, the AARP Public Policy Institute partnered with Stanford University’s Center on the Demography and Economics of Health and Aging to investigate the link between social isolation and Medicare spending. Medicare is a federal insurance program that covered over 46 million people ages 65 and older in2015.

Medicare helps pay for vital health services including inpatient hospital care, preventive care, physician visits, prescription drugs, and other services. This study focused on the relationship between social isolation and Medicare spending because Medicare is the primary payer for health care services for virtually all Americans ages 65 and older.

This study is the first to explore the relationship between social isolation and Medicare spending. We found that a lack of social contacts among older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending annually.