As the research documenting loneliness as a risk factor for morbidity and mortality continues to grow, it becomes increasingly critical to understand the mechanics of this relationship. This study assessed whether sleep disturbance mediates the relationship between loneliness and health.
Data came from the 2006, 2010, and 2014 waves of the Health and Retirement Study, a longitudinal study of older Americans; participants ≥ 65 who completed the Psychosocial and Lifestyle Questionnaire in 2006 were included (n = 5067). Measures include the Hughes loneliness scales, a modified version of the Jenkins sleep scale, and self-reported health. Cross-lagged mediation models (i.e., path analysis) were used to model the relationships between loneliness, sleep disturbance, and self-reported health over the 8-year span.
Loneliness predicted subsequent sleep disturbance, which in turn predicted subsequent self-reported health. Moreover, there was evidence of both direct and indirect effects (via sleep disturbance) of loneliness on self-reported health. These effects remained after controlling for demographics, isolation, and depression.
Sleep disturbance partially mediates the relationship between loneliness and self-reported health over 8 years. These findings are not attributable to isolation or depression. Further research is necessary to develop and assess a more comprehensive model of how loneliness shapes health. This study indicates that targeting sleep disturbance may mitigate the health risks of loneliness in older Americans.