Mind & Body

Can Being Lonely Shorten Your Life?

Feelings of loneliness bumped risk of early death by 26 percent in new study

Loneliness, long associated with poor mental health, including depression, may affect physical health, too, a new study suggests. In fact, social isolation might even bring on death at an earlier age.

The findings, published this month in Perspectives on Psychological Science, are based on a review of data from 70 of studies involving more than 3 million people.

“People don’t commonly think of social factors when they think of health,” says study co-author Timothy B. Smith, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “We think of things like exercise, blood pressure and taking cholesterol medication. But it turns out that social isolation is actually more predictive of death than any of those three things.”

The research focused on studies that explored how loneliness, social isolation or living alone affects lifespan. Study participants averaged 66 years of age, and about a third struggled with chronic illness. Though the review didn’t prove cause and effect, it did find a strong association between loneliness and the risk of dying sooner.

Some of the study’s findings:

  • Social isolation (having few or no social contact or activities) increased the risk for dying sooner by 29 percent.
  • Being lonely (whether or not a person had social contacts) was linked to a 26 percent higher risk for an earlier death.
  • People who lived alone had a 32 percent higher risk of an earlier death than those who lived with another person.
  • The effect was similar for men and women.
  • The link between loneliness and earlier death was stronger for those younger than age 65.
  • Loneliness coupled with a physical health issue made the problem more intense.
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Researchers aren’t sure why loneliness could lead to shorter lives. “It will take a decade of more research to ferret that out,” Smith says. But he believes there could be several factors, including poorer immune function, fewer healthy behaviors and a rise in risky behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse, driving aggressively or not wearing a seat belt.

Loneliness, the experts note, is an emotional state, not the act of being alone. “You can be around people all the time but still feel very, very lonely,” Smith says. “Even if you live alone but don’t feel lonely, you may still experience a negative impact on your health. It turns out that we are literally wired to be social beings, and our immune system and our stress response just function better when we are in a collective. It turns out that we are basically healthier when we are social.”

The recommendation: Deepen relationships with family and friends. Join social activities, such as a book or dance club, even if it feels awkward at first. Or reconnect with groups like your Greek organization.

Photo: Depositphotos

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