Severe Loneliness: The Deadly Impact of Being Isolated



Research has found that extreme loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14 percent. Premature death from loneliness is almost as likely as premature mortality from having disadvantaged socioeconomic status, a factor that heightens the risk by 19 percent. The study, conducted by John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the the University of Chicago, and his colleagues, said this mostly affects seniors who feel isolated or lack strong community connections. The team presented the information at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Chicago from February 13 to 17.

“Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo said in a University of Chicago press release detailing key findings from the study. However, people don’t have to put off heading South for retirement, because perception plays a large role. The study found that loneliness has less to do with physical isolation — instead, the feeling that one is alone is a more important factor. Living alone is not unhealthy if a person is socially engaged and enjoys the company of others. When strong connections are lacking, loneliness and its detrimental side effects can begin to take effect.

For the study, 2,101 people 50 and older were evaluated. To estimate loneliness, researchers used the Health and Retirement Study from 2002 and 2008. The participants were then studied for a six-year period; mortality, loneliness, health behaviors, and social relationships were monitored during this time. During the six-year evaluation, mortality was associated with loneliness, which also increased the potential for other health conditions. In addition to a risk of higher mortality rates, social seclusion was discovered to disrupt sleep, raise stress hormone cortisol levels in the morning, alter gene expression, increase depression, and lessen overall well-being. This was presented at the AAAS conference during the “Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging“ talk.

As the population ages, learning what the risk factors are for mortality and what can be done to promote longevity and healthier lifestyles is important. “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,” Cacioppo said. “People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality.”

When fulfilling social relationships were observed, the participants tended to have a higher level of resilience, enabling them to “bounce back” from life’s setbacks. According to Cacioppo, building a strong network can start by staying in contact with former coworkers, engaging in family traditions, and participating in activities. There are also three types of connectedness — intimate, relational, and collective — which form the backbone to healthy relationships. The first is a feeling fostered by someone in a person’s life who affirms who that person is, the second is developed from mutually rewarding face-to-face interactions, and the third occurs when a person feels he or she is part of a larger group.

Cacioppo and his team believe that their findings contribute to a growing literature indicating that rewarding social relationships is a protective factor for morbidity and mortality and point to potential mechanisms through which this process works.” Cacioppo is the Tiffany & Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago. He has previously assessed the affects of loneliness on society. In 2009, he led another study that found loneliness is contagious, like the common cold. 

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