Does Loneliness Really Put You At Higher Risk for Premature Death?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

No one likes feeling lonely, but recent research suggests that loneliness could be more devastating than just an unpleasant emotion. Psychologist John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, as well as his colleagues, found that loneliness can increase one’s chances of dying early by 14 percent, and his study joins ongoing research conducted by Angelique Chan, associate professor at the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School at the National University of Singapore. For the past five years, Chan has been tracking a nationally representative sample of 5,000 people over the age of 60 in Singapore to study the association between loneliness and risk of death, and the two teams of researchers have recognized notable overlaps in their findings.

Cacioppo’s study was highlighted by USA Today in mid-March when the psychologist explained that he reviewed survey responses from more than 2,100 adults 55 and older, controlling for age, gender, socioeconomic status, social isolation, and poor health behaviors. He and his colleagues’ research is ongoing, but so far they have found that loneliness can lead to sleep problems, raise blood pressure, increase the stress hormone cortisol, increase depression, and reduce feelings of living a meaningful life. Cacioppo explained via USA Today that, ”Having high-quality relationships with a few people is one of the keys to happiness and longevity. The stresses of life are more easily endured if we can share them with someone in whom we can confide and trust.”

Cacioppo’s findings alone focused more of a spotlight on loneliness and the impact of the state of emotions last month, and that light was turned on again this week when Chan’s research was reported by the South Morning China Post, drawing out similarities between the two studies.

According to South China Morning Post, Chan’s analyses include three aspects of loneliness: physical (who you live with), social (neighbors and friends you engage with), and perception of loneliness (based on the UCLA Loneliness Scale), and she found that after controlling for variables, the only factor that remained significant in determining a likelihood of death was a person’s perception of their loneliness. She explained that, “We used baseline data on loneliness in 2009 as a predictor of mortality in 2011. We found that people who perceive themselves as lonely were 10 percent more likely to die.”

That’s a scary reality for many people, especially considering the elderly commonly live alone and the Baby Boomers are only getting older, and Chan’s team is hoping to get even more answers in the future as they go back to their elderly subjects again and collect more data points to support or negate their current hypotheses. South China Morning Post explained Monday that Chan’s team will soon start analyzing markers of inflammation and levels of stress hormones such as cortisol to quantify the correlation between loneliness and health, and will also take cheek swabs to analyze cortisol levels in saliva.

Now, it’s important to match Chan and Cacioppo’s research findings up next to each other. Both study the health risks associated with loneliness in the elderly, and they have unveiled similar conclusions about the potentially dangerous impact of it. There is certainly still research to be done, but as it stands, both research groups recognize loneliness as a trigger for a number of health issues, even early onset death, and they encourage people to take note of the problem. Cacioppo explained via The South China Morning Post Monday that, “We are experiencing a silver tsunami, demographically. The Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being, and early mortality.”

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