Loneliness Can Kill You

Loneliness is a state of mind

But loneliness also harms the body

Loneliness is a condition in which persons see themselves to be socially isolated as a consequence of perceived inadequate social connections. Loneliness can have serious consequences for health and well-being, including increased risk of dying. Loneliness is a growing public health problem that affects ordinary people, even those who live among other people.

Loneliness researchers Louise Hawkley and the late John Cacioppo proposed that loneliness accelerates the rate of age-related declines in physiological regulation and resilience. Several possible pathways of decline include fewer healthy choices, exposure to stressors, perceived stress, stress response, and reduced ability to recuperate.

Social isolation, both perceived and actual, predicts increased risk of premature death. A recent meta-analytic review found that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone were associated with 29, 26, and 32 percent increased risk of mortality, respectively. The increased risk of premature death associated with actual and perceived social isolation mimicked other, well-established risk factors for mortality.

Older persons commonly experience loneliness, which can cause distress and impair activities of daily living. Researchers used data from 1,064 participants over age 60 in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative sample of older Americans, to see if loneliness predicted risk of death. Lonely participants had a 45 percent higher risk of death than the not lonely participants over a 6-year follow-up period. In addition, compared to being not lonely, being lonely significantly predicted increased risk of decline in activities of daily living (59 percent), upper extremities tasks (28 percent), and climbing (31 percent). Loneliness might lead to poorer health as a consequence of increased inflammation, decreased sleep, and less adherence to medical recommendations. Health outcomes for older people would likely improve with greater social involvement, particularly by developing and maintaining rewarding personal relationships.

Researchers studied whether if social relationships, health behaviors, and health outcomes affected the link between loneliness and mortality. Research subjects included participants in the National Health and Retirement Study. Subjects who reported feeling lonely (as opposed to not feeling lonely) in 2002 has a 14 percent higher risk of dying over the next six years. Older adults with the highest levels of loneliness showed a 96 percent higher risk of dying over six years compared to those with the lowest levels of loneliness. Feelings of loneliness appeared to reduce physical and emotional health, thereby leading to higher risk of dying. Loneliness may affect our physiology in terms of increased vascular resistance, increased systolic blood pressure, or reduced immune response.

There’s little doubt that loneliness predicts poor health and well-being. Cultivating social connections may be the best thing we can do to avoid loneliness and improve our Quality of Lifespan.

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