The Toll of a Solitary Life

From Well/NYTimes

Do you like being alone? New research from Brigham Young University shows just how bad loneliness and social isolation, even for people who prefer their own company, can be for health.

The researchers analyzed data collected from 70 studies and more than 3.4 million people from 1980 to 2014. The studies, which followed people for about seven years on average, showed that people who were socially isolated, lonely or living alone had about a 30 percent higher chance of dying during a given study period than those who had regular social contact. Notably, the effect was greater for younger people than for those over 65, according to the report in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead author, said the effect of loneliness and social isolation was as great a risk factor as obesity and should be taken seriously as a threat to public health.

“The key point that I hope others will get from this is the recognition that this is an important public health issue,” said Dr. Holt-Lunstad. “Social isolation significantly predicts risk for premature mortality comparable to other well established risk factors. Thus, we need to take our social relationships as seriously for our health as we do these other factors.”

The researchers noted that loneliness could take various forms. Some people with strong social networks may still feel lonely, even when surrounded by loved ones. Others choose social isolation and even prefer it.

Loneliness or living alone seemed to be particularly bad for middle-aged adults, compared with older people in the same situation. It may be that solitary middle-aged adults are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and less likely to seek medical treatment, whereas older people may pay more attention to their health. Or it may be that older adults are alone as a result of the death of a spouse, and have not necessarily experienced years of social isolation.

The study authors noted that affluent nations had the highest rates of individuals living alone, and that social isolation would reach epidemic proportions in the next two decades. “Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual,” the authors wrote, “physical health is not among them.”

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