As social creatures, we suffer when cut off from one another
By Emily Gurnon for Next Avenue
You may have heard that loneliness is hazardous to your health — and can even lead to an early death. Now, an analysis of 23 scientific studies gives us numbers that reveal just how sick it can really make you.
People with “poor social relationships” had a 29 percent higher risk of newly diagnosed heart disease and a 32 percent higher risk of stroke, according to the study, published July 1 in the British journal Heart.
That puts loneliness and social isolation on par with other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as anxiety and job strain, the researchers said. And it exceeds the risk posed by physical inactivity and obesity, said lead researcher Nicole Valtorta, of the Department of Health Sciences, University of York, England.
Given the results of the study, Valtorta said, “interventions to prevent coronary heart disease and stroke should take loneliness and social isolation into consideration.”
Such interventions could be relatively inexpensive, she added, especially given the fact that cardiovascular disease remains the most costly disease in the United States. It accounted for direct medical costs totaling $193 billion, according to a 2015 study from GoBankingRates.com.
There’s a difference
Loneliness and social isolation do not necessarily go hand in hand. You can be lonely in a crowd, or you can be by yourself and feel perfectly content. But when your experience is negative — you are not happy with the quality of your social interactions, or you’re grieving a loss — that “can be really disastrous for well-being,” Valtorta said.
Unlike other studies, Valtorta’s (which was published online in April) was the first to focus on whether people experiencing loneliness and isolation were at greater risk of developing cardiovascular disease. It excluded people who were lonely but already had the disease.
Studies involving 181,000 people living mainly in the U.S., Europe and Japan were examined as a part of the meta-analysis, and they were tracked for a range of time — between three and 21 years. Among those people, there were 4,628 heart attacks or related events and 3,002 strokes.
The age of the subjects varied, and it wasn’t possible given the data to conclude whether a 75-year-old lonely person was more likely to have a heart attack than a 50-year-old, Valtorta said. The researchers did not find evidence of a difference between men and women.
Other research on isolation and health
A separate 2015 meta-analysis by Brigham Young University researchers concluded that both actual and perceived isolation were associated with early death.
Social isolation corresponded with a 29 percent greater risk of premature death; loneliness corresponded with a 26 percent greater risk and living alone corresponded with a 32 percent greater likelihood, according to the study, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Social isolation and loneliness threatened longevity as much as obesity did, the study said.
Two of the Brigham Young researchers were also involved in a 2010 study that found loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The problem is only getting worse, the scientists said.
“Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships … over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants,” the study said.
All of the studies reinforce the growing recognition of loneliness as a public health issue.
A nonprofit coalition in Britain has responded by initiating the Campaign to End Loneliness, which among other things aims to broaden the services and activities available to those who may be lonely.
What we should be doing
Brigham Young researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad told Time magazine that nurturing close relationships as well as a “diverse set of social connections” is key. She said that policies to alleviate loneliness may be difficult to imagine but could include encouraging doctors to identify at-risk patients and rethink the way neighborhoods are designed, the magazine said.
“People’s response is oftentimes to say, ‘What are you going to do, tell everybody to give someone a hug?’” Time quoted Holt-Lunstad as saying. “But there are many potential ways in which this could be implemented.”