Getting under the skin: Social isolation and biological markers in the National Health and Aging Trends Study

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Background: Social isolation is a risk factor for morbidity and mortality comparable to well-established risk factors including smoking, hypertension, and a sedentary lifestyle. The specific biological mechanisms that connect social isolation to morbidity and mortality remain unclear. Interleukin-6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP) are biological markers that are upregulated during inflammation and can have long-term negative consequences for the health of individuals as they age. Methods: Utilizing Round 7 (2017) data from the National Health and Aging Trends Study (NHATS), we examine the relationship between social isolation and two biological markers: IL-6 and high-sensitivity CRP. This study included a nationally representative sample of 4648 Medicare beneficiaries 65 years and older who provided samples using dried blood spot (DBS) techniques. We defined social isolation utilizing a multi-domained typology that considers living arrangement, core discussion network, religious attendance, and social participation. IL-6 and CRP were obtained via DBS that were collected in Round 7 of the NHATS. We performed linear regression to examine the association between social isolation and biological markers IL-6 and CRP. Results: After adjusting for age, gender, race/ethnicity, income, tobacco use, body mass index, and chronic conditions, we found that severe social isolation and social isolation were significantly associated with higher levels of IL-6 and CRP values among older adults. Conclusions: Social isolation is associated with higher levels of biological markers (IL-6 and CRP). Our findings inform the pathway between social isolation and morbidity and mortality among older adults. IL-6 or CRP could be a proximal outcome measures for future clinical and social interventions that seek to alter the trajectory of social isolation and its associated health outcomes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)408-414
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of the American Geriatrics Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • C-reactive protein
  • biological markers
  • interleukin-6

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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