Social Isolation, Not Just Feeling Lonely, May Shorten Lives

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Feeling lonely seems to go hand in hand with being isolated, but there’s a difference, according to a growing body of research. 

It’s no secret that people who are socially isolated tend to be at greater risk of health issues, from mood disorders like depression to stress-related chronic conditions like heart disease. But what is really responsible for these negative outcomes — the emotional toll of feeling alone or the physical and social lack of contact with others?

Now a new study suggests that being socially isolated may have a greater effect on risk of early death, especially among the elderly. The research, which was led by Andrew Steptoe, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, followed 6,500 British people over 52 from 2004 until 2012. The most socially isolated in this group were 26% more likely to die during the study period than those with the most active social lives, even after controlling for factors that also affect mortality, like age and illness.

(MORE: How Feeling Lonely Can Shorten Your Life)

In contrast, feelings of loneliness reported by the participants, although often linked with isolation, were not significantly linked with death risk when these other factors were taken into account. Separating out the two influences is important because therapies to change perceptions of loneliness aren’t likely to work if the real problem is not having friends or family who can provide support.

“This finding suggests that the subjective experience of loneliness — often thought to be the psychological manifestation of social isolation — is not the primary mechanism explaining the association between social isolation and mortality,” the authors conclude.

They offer several explanations for the health risks linked to isolation. First, being isolated may mean that no one else is aware of the first signs of illness, or worsening symptoms of a disease, which can delay medical attention and lead to earlier death.

(MORE: Loneliness, Not Living Alone, Linked to Dementia)

But more important, social contact can have profound physiological effects. Simply holding a loved one’s hand lowers blood pressure and reduces pain, for example. Studies show that lack of affectionate physical contact is associated with higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation. “Social contact itself also may have specific biological consequences that are important for health maintenance,” the authors write.

Indeed, loneliness may be a marker for health problems that arise from such social isolation, and previous studies have conflated loneliness and social isolation. “These results do not imply that loneliness is not important,” the authors note, “but rather indicate that the experience of loneliness may be characteristic of people who already have major health and mobility problems.”

John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, calls the new findings “exciting” but believes there are other ways that loneliness may contribute to early risk of death. He says that cultural differences, for example, may account for some of the negative effect on health. “For instance, the Brits’ culture of a ‘stiff upper lip’ may mean people who live alone are less likely to admit to feeling lonely than are residents of the U.S.” That would make it harder to separate out the results of loneliness and isolation in a British sample, he says.

(MORE: How Economic Inequality Is Literally Making Us Sick)

But regardless of whether it’s the physical isolation of individuals or their loneliness that contributes to poor health, people who feel as if they are alone in the world are at increased risk of early mortality. “Both objective and subjective isolation can imprison an individual, though through different means,” says Cacioppo.

The results therefore have important implications for addressing those who are isolated. They suggest that physically engaging people who are socially apart may do more for improving their health and survival than trying to address their feelings of loneliness or feeling left out. All it takes is a walk or a lunch or even a hug.

27 comments
DisFUNctional
DisFUNctional

I am a 48 year old woman with a history of depression and anxiety starting in early childhood. I have PTSD, which is impossible to link to one horrific experience, because there have been so many. I don't like thinking about all those things, let alone talking about them because it makes me feel like I'm trying to explain to people that it's not my fault I have PTSD. Almost like when someone says a woman "deserved" to get raped because of how she was dressed. It's humiliating...
Through the years, my anxiety, depression, and PTSD, got worse, and evolved into agoraphobia. I've had a Service Dog for 10 years, and many days, that's the only reason I go out. And many days I still can't go out. The terror inside me is overwhelming and even with my Dog "protecting" me, I still don't feel safe enough. I have gone without food to avoid leaving the house.
I've also been diagnosed with Crohn's/Ulcerative Colitis. It's a severe case, and I've been in the hospital so many times in the last couple years, I've lost count. I was in 5 times last month alone. This is also very difficult to be in the hospital. I also developed what they call "Broken Heart Syndrome", A.K.A Stress Cardiomyopathy, and my blood pressure remains through the roof.
Needless to say, I have no friends. None. I have an extremely dysfunctional family, and only have contact with my parents. Mostly phone calls, but I manage an occasional short visit. My eldest son (my two youngest are with their dad and hate me) moved from here in Southern Illinois to Florida almost a year ago. He was my only consistent human contact. 
I am trying to save money and sell my trailer so I can move to Florida. My son wants me there, and I think it would be better for me. Florida is full of senior citizens. I love the elderly. When I was a girl, about 6, I used to go to the nursing home down the road everyday. I visited with everyone, but did have a few favorites. When I was in my teens, I worked in nursing homes as a nurse's aide. To this day I am more comfortable around the elderly than anyone else. I plan on getting a big RV and living in it. That way, I can feel safer wherever I go, because my home will always be with me!
But, I can't go until I sell my place and have the money. So I'm waiting. But everyday seems to get harder. I'm so lonely, but my fear of leaving the house overwhelms my need for human contact. And there's always the fear of being shunned when I reach out to someone. I even feel bad when people at the grocery store don't say hello or smile back at me. I haven't had any luck on Facebook either. I have no idea how to talk to people.  My meager attempts at socialization are huge feats for me. And when they fail, it's personal.

So, here I sit alone with my 5 dogs. I see no one, I talk to no one. I don't get phone calls, and I have nobody to call. I wake up every morning and cry. I cry off and on, all day everyday...even now as I type. Even now I have that nagging fear what I've written will be ridiculed or, worse, ignored. But, in a way, writing this is like talking to someone...I guess I'll take what I can get. :/

MiltonNunley
MiltonNunley

Thank you kindly for being gracious enough to share your inner most genuine feelings and life experiences. It is appreciated!!

BradSoverty
BradSoverty

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Nickirolx
Nickirolx

im a 19 year old girl, dropped out of school at 15 due to bullying. have led the same life i did after i dropped out til now and even still. taking every day as it comes. i havnt worked at all nor do i have a qualification to my name. I've found it hard to socialise for a very long time, infact i have cried countless times when faced with a social activity im uncomfortable with. Ive 2 friends that go back to my childhood but i very rarely see them although i have a boyfriend for 2years now and i still feel lonely, as if no one understands or gets me. esp recently im finding every day a struggle. im on paroxetine 10mg for anxiety and depression. even at the moment im just crying, im afraid.

talkmelinda
talkmelinda

Which is why I created a website to talk with people who are lonely/alone. Having been there myself, it helped me to speak with others. Be it friends or strangers. It fact, the impact was tremendous!

Social contact was crucial in helping me out of my isolation and depression. And I see a lot of importance in paying it forward.

http://talktomelinda.yolasite.com/

JuliaHines
JuliaHines

@mellojonny used proxies eg talked about imp of "keeping busy" or that they were "lucky" because they had a daughter instead.

paulgeorges
paulgeorges

Unfortunately more and more people are going lonely because of social problems ,out of work or without enough money to live a decent way. As long as we accept such inegality we cannot change this trend. Is that a right society when only a very few wealthy one can afford to wast money that even a loto winner can even dream of ?  Now luxury brand are up, others not exactly up! We are back in time of feodality with lords and villains. Guess who are villains ?  Robin Hood help us .

sandhu_teji
sandhu_teji

@dopaminergic13 < social contact can have profound physiological effects. Simply holding a loved one’s hand lowers BP and reduces pain >

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

Research That States The Obvious = Not Newsworthy.

DabizLegend
DabizLegend

%s %s %s You bring the facts, and I'll bring the coffee. Until then, I can't see you. %s %s

MaggietheMezzo
MaggietheMezzo

@njuiirungu I donno why ur smiling OR reading depressing stuff like that kwanza at this hour. ION...I'm awake. SURPRIIIISE :D

raidx259
raidx259

I really rather keep to myself because I find people in general annoying, full of themselves, self diluted and egotistic. In short people just piss me off.

raidx259
raidx259

I don't understand these studies. I'm not a very social person and I am perfectly happy being alone. So are they saying that putting myself in a situation I don't enjoy or desire (hanging out, having lots of friends, etc. ) is what is going to make me live longer? I always thought that being happy doing what you liked was the secret to a happy life.

bojimbo26
bojimbo26

You pass away when it is your time , not before .

jf_smit
jf_smit

I completely agree with this phenomenon, particularly because of the link with mood d/o. I would be curious to see how "early death" is defined, though. It seems almost contradictory to think about elderly people dying an early death.