Frontiers in Psychiatry

Do Words Matter? Detecting Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults Using Natural Language Processing

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Introduction: Social isolation and loneliness (SI/L) are growing problems with serious health implications for older adults, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We examined transcripts from semi-structured interviews with 97 older adults (mean age 83 years) to identify linguistic features of SI/L. Methods: Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods were used to identify relevant interview segments (responses to specific questions), extract the type and number of social contacts and linguistic features such as sentiment, parts-of-speech, and syntactic complexity. We examined: (1) associations of NLP-derived assessments of social relationships and linguistic features with validated self-report assessments of social support and loneliness; and (2) important linguistic features for detecting individuals with higher level of SI/L by using machine learning (ML) models. Results: NLP-derived assessments of social relationships were associated with self-reported assessments of social support and loneliness, though these associations were stronger in women than in men. Usage of first-person plural pronouns was negatively associated with loneliness in women and positively associated with emotional support in men. ML analysis using leave-one-out methodology showed good performance (F1 = 0.73, AUC = 0.75, specificity = 0.76, and sensitivity = 0.69) of the binary classification models in detecting individuals with higher level of SI/L. Comparable performance were also observed when classifying social and emotional support measures. Using ML models, we identified several linguistic features (including use of first-person plural pronouns, sentiment, sentence complexity, and sentence similarity) that most strongly predicted scores on scales for loneliness and social support. Discussion: Linguistic data can provide unique insights into SI/L among older adults beyond scale-based assessments, though there are consistent gender differences. Future research studies that incorporate diverse linguistic features as well as other behavioral data-streams may be better able to capture the complexity of social functioning in older adults and identification of target subpopulations for future interventions. Given the novelty, use of NLP should include prospective consideration of bias, fairness, accountability, and related ethical and social implications.