Social Isolation, Not Just Feeling Lonely, May Shorten Lives

  • Share
  • Read Later
Jon Shireman / Getty Images

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.

24 comments
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. 

tomorrowsmine
tomorrowsmine

@Nickirolx I'm 56 years old and at age 19 went through a very similar situation. I can offer only my experience and not advice. It cost me a lot of money and the best years of my life to learn the following:


Love yourself and take full responsibility for who and what you are. Blaming others doesn't fix anything. The bullies help toughen us.


Avoid medication.. It is expensive and often the side effects are worse than the problem.  They may play a role as a short term fix, but it takes commitment and hard work in the long term to find your place in relation to others on this planet.


Restrict alcohol and never do recreational drugs.


Work hard. It's a tonic. It burns off negative energy. Even (or even especially) at what some may consider a menial job. It's good for the soul and at least keeps you financially independent. It's also a time during which you can consider how you're going to conduct the rest of your life.


Stay honest. How could you love someone who isn't? As above..you need to love yourself and when you do, it's amazing what bounces back to you.


Set achievable goals and reward yourself for achieving them. 


Focus on what you have rather than what you don't have.


Allow yourself to grieve, but don't allow it to consume you. Use your inner voice to cap grieving time. Your sadness is valid. We all have it. But when your sadness defines you, it drives others away in the DROVES.


I leave these thoughts with you, wishing you all the best in everything. I feel your pain. Crying is good, but not too much of it. There's a lifetime ahead.....not easy.....but it's up to you to make something of it. 





tomorrowsmine
tomorrowsmine

@paulgeorges


People often isolate themselves because they are trying to mix in circles where they don't belong. 


They refuse to accept the fact that they do not have the money or the social/familial/occupational associations.


They abandon people their own ilk, leaving them feeling lonely and isolated, whilst pursuing their holy grail.


They need to tone down their expectations, live life appropriately and bin their delusions of grandeur.  Life is hard work, and a lot of that apparent wealth and fine living is illusion. Some of the happiest people in the world are also the poorest.


We need to evaluate who we are and what we have, and make the most of it.  

bernardsmith
bernardsmith

@mrbomb13 Research that states the obvious is not news but the the UCL research  - if valid  - IS news because it is just as likely - perhaps even more likely that those people who are going to suffer from depression may be indicating this by isolating themselves more than one might expect to see from a population of people less likely to candidates for depressive illness. In other words, Steptoe and his colleagues are making a huge statement that there is a vector that moves from isolation to depression and not , eg that isolation is an indicator of impending depressive illness. The fact that we IMAGINE that isolation CAUSES depressive illness is neither here nor there. Our imagination may be faulty and  we might be wrong. Personally, I don't know that Steptoe and Colleagues showed that this vector exists simply because they showed that there is some kind of correlation but correlations are not causes 

Nidhal
Nidhal

@raidx259 I  DO agree with you completely ,,though I am a university professor and a translator ,,,I have realized after this long life that nowadays being with people brings nothing but hypocrisy ,  time consuming for no actual valuable results unless those people have the same morals , mentality , principles ,, I have now been living all alone for almost three years by myself ,, I have undergone 4 operations ,, I  have been diagnosed of thyroid malignant cancer ,,, I have been through the most difficult time in all my life ,, I left my country to get rid of vital personal problems ,,, I ended up sick and alone- however , I have tolerated all this by myself ( being alone for the first time in all my life) ,,, before that when I was surrounded by all my family members in my own home ,,in my own country ,,, they never asked about me BUT when they needed something .. I was always the hen that lays gold eggs to all of my siblings and their off springs ,,,to my spouse ,, to all my colleagues  and friends ,,relatives , neighbors  ,, to all ,, in short I was used up and abused  BECAUSE I AM A GOOD, KIND, DECENT ,HONEST  SINCERE , LOVING and CARING person ,,, 

Now living all alone here  facing all these difficulties have made me stronger ,,more patient ,, I started enjoying my writing and my time ,,, As for caring ,,, believe me no one cares for another without being PAID ,, it is a PITY ,,but that is the TRUTH which I have experienced throughout all my life ,,,

SO IF LONELINESS  makes any one relaxed , serene and give s him/ her PEACE of MIND then   let ME LIVE ALONE AND HAVE MY OWN PRIVACY in peace ...

Peace_2_All
Peace_2_All

@bojimbo26 

@bojimbo26 ---No evidence for Calvinistic Determinism.  We can, *as a generality* extend our lives by doing a myriad of things that will keep us healthier and happier... or we can do things that will bring help us "pass away" quicker.

It's a no-brainer.... Not sure exactly where you are coming from on this.

Peace...