Social Isolation May Shorten Your Lifespan
Loneliness is Dangerous
Studies released in 2012 linked loneliness to disabilities and early death. In one study, conducted at Harvard Medical School, the researchers followed thousands of people with heart disease or at risk for heart disease. Among the participants, those living alone were more likely to die from a heart attack or something else related to their heart disease. The connection was especially strong in the younger members of the study group. People between the ages of 45 and 65 who lived alone were nearly 25 percent more likely to die of heart disease.
Another study from the University of California, San Francisco took a different approach. Instead of using living alone as a sign of loneliness, researchers asked the elderly participants if they felt lonely, isolated, or left out. They then checked in with the participants over the course of several years. Those who described themselves as lonely were much more likely to have a hard time coping with everyday activities and to have died by the end of the study.
Loneliness and Dementia
The study from California showed that living alone does not necessarily make someone lonely. Another study, from the Netherlands, made the same connection. This study looked at elderly people and dementia. The researchers found that those who reported feeling lonely, whether or not they lived alone, were much more likely to develop dementia. Even some participants who lived surrounded by family and friends, but who felt lonely, were more likely to show signs of dementia. The researchers are not sure if the loneliness causes dementia, or if those who have it tend to become lonely as a result, but there is a definite connection.
Feeling lonely is one thing, but being socially isolated is even more serious. A more recent study, conducted at University College London, found a difference between the negative effects of being lonely and of being isolated and removed from others. The researchers followed several thousand people over the age of 52 from 2004 to 2012. Those participants who were the most isolated were 26 percent more likely to die during the study. The researchers also found that feeling lonely often went hand-in-hand with being isolated, but that loneliness by itself did not necessarily increase the risk of death.
What the results of this study show is that feelings of loneliness are not what cause lonely people to have poor health and to die earlier. The cause is related to being isolated from people, living alone and having little contact with other people. One reason that this might be true is that people who are mostly alone have no one to notice when their health is slipping.
Another very important reason, according to the researchers, for isolation causing earlier death is that contact with people is good for your health. Holding hands with someone you love, for instance, automatically lowers your blood pressure and reduces pain. People who do not have much physical contact with others tend to have greater inflammation and higher levels of stress hormones in their bodies.
All of the above studies are important because they show how necessary it is to be around other people and to interact with friends and family. Feelings of loneliness are normal to experience from time to time, but if you feel lonely often, or if you do not have much contact with people, you may need to make some changes. Keeping in contact with old friends, spending time with family, and even just talking on the phone can help you feel more in touch with others. The more time you can devote to being sociable, the better your health—both mental and physical—will be.