Loneliness, social isolation linked to serious health effects: Study
If you’re lonely or socially isolated, you might have a higher risk of early death, according to a large new study.
There have been many studies on the associations between social isolation, loneliness and the risk of dying early, but some results have been controversial or mixed, according to the paper published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
Those conflicting results could be due to research only focusing on a specific group or region, said Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the department of psychology at New York’s Stony Brook University. Canli wasn’t involved in the study.
The new paper, however, is a meta-analysis of 90 studies that had examined the links between loneliness, social isolation and early death among more than 2 million adults. Study participants were followed for anywhere from six months to 25 years.
People who experienced social isolation had a 32% higher risk of dying early from any cause compared with those who weren’t socially isolated. Participants who reported feeling lonely were 14% more likely to die early than those who did not.
The research “gives us even greater confidence” about the importance of social isolation and loneliness as independent risk factors for premature death, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, who wasn’t involved in the study. Holt-Lunstad was the lead scientist on the US Surgeon General’s recent advisory report on social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation, as defined by the new study, occurs when someone has an objective lack of contact with other people and can involve having a limited network or living alone.
Loneliness, on the other hand, refers to the subjective distress people feel if there’s a discrepancy between the quality of social relationships they actually have and what they want, according to the meta-analysis.
Someone in this situation may feel their relationships are unsatisfying if they don’t fulfill their needs for connection or intimacy, said Anthony Ong, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Integrative Developmental Science and Human Health Labs at Cornell University in New York state. Ong wasn’t involved in the research.
There are several factors that could contribute to social isolation having a stronger effect on early death risk than loneliness, experts say.
“People who are lonely but not socially isolated have mental health stress but might be resilient to it because of their social networks” — even if those networks aren’t entirely what someone wants them to be, said the study’s first author Fan Wang, a professor of epidemiology at Harbin Medical University in China.
Having a small social network or little to no contact with the outside world can also make someone less likely to receive medical care if they don’t have anyone checking on them, Canli said.