The health effects of loneliness

lonelyMore than 25 percent of adults in the United States live alone – a cultural trend that has important implications for the health of many Americans.

A new systematic review published in the journal Perspectives in Psychological Science found that people who feel lonely or are socially isolated are about 30 percent more likely to die earlier, compared to those with robust social networks.

The meta analysis included 70 prospective studies and more than 3.4 million participants across the globe, who were followed for an average of seven years. Combining the most robust data, the researchers found the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone regardless of gender or where people lived. In addition, the researchers found that loneliness is more of a health problem for people younger than 65 years of age.

The researchers wrote that social isolation is comparable to other “well-established risk factors for mortality” including obesity, substance abuse, mental health, injury and violence, and immunization.

With this type of research, there is always the question of which problem comes first. Are people in poorer health more likely to be lonely, or is loneliness actually causing the health problem? The researchers who wrote this review make a cohesive argument that loneliness does contribute to an earlier death.

“Many researchers are finding that loneliness is associated with worse health. But it has been hard to establish which comes first, loneliness, or worse health,” explains Elaine Wethington, a medical sociologist at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. “Loneliness is a very stressful state, and there is evidence that if it persists over time it can have negative health impacts. But other researchers have found that having poor health can make a person more socially isolated. A conclusion we can agree on is that loneliness is a bad state to be in and that there is a need for evidence-based programs to help those who are lonely.”

The take-home messages: Social and mental well being is just as important to our overall health as are physical factors.

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