Being alone is bad for our health

Sat, 10 Oct 2015 13:26:16 +0000



“No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.”

So wrote the English poet John Donne (1572-1631).

We humans are social animals. Being social by nature, the logical implication is that when we are isolated from others, whether objective or subjective, that isolation could have negative effects on our well being.

Objective isolation refers to people who are physically isolated because they live alone, or are socially isolated because they have no or few family or friends. Subjective isolation refers to feelings of loneliness that may or may not be due to objective isolation as we can feel lonely in a crowd, or conversely, live alone but do not feel lonely.

Whether the isolation is objective or subjective, a study published in 2015 in the peer-reviewed journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10(2), pp. 227–237, titled, “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review,” found that both types of isolation have deleterious, even deadly, effects on our health.

The study was conducted by five social scientists at Brigham Young University’s Departments of Psychology and Counseling Psychology: Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson.

To begin, the study distinguishes “being alone” from “feeling lonely”:

Living alone, having few social network ties, and having infrequent social contact are all markers of social isolation…. Whereas social isolation can be an objectively quantifiable variable, loneliness is a subjective emotional state. Loneliness is the perception of social isolation, or the subjective experience of being lonely….

People lacking human contact often feel lonely (Yildirim & Kocabiyik, 2010); however, social isolation and loneliness are often not significantly correlated (Coyle & Dugan, 2012; Perissinotto & Covinsky, 2014), suggesting that these may be independent constructs and that one may occur without the other.

For their research, the team of five Brigham Young University psychologists looked at hundreds of published studies on the health effects of social isolation. Out of 1,384 potentially relevant reports, the psychologists narrowed the sample to 70 reports involving a total of more than 3.4 million people. The testimony of those 70 reports is striking and compelling. In the words of the Brigham Young study:

Social isolation results in higher likelihood of mortality, whether measured objectively or subjectively. Cumulative data from 70 independent prospective studies, with 3,407,134 participants followed for an average of 7 years, revealed a significant effect of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone on odds of mortality. After accounting for multiple covariates, the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone. These data indicated essentially no difference between objective and subjective measures of social isolation when predicting mortality…. Although we cannot confirm causality, the data show that individuals who were socially isolated, lonely, or living alone at study initiation were more likely to be deceased at the follow-up, regardless of participants’ age or socioeconomic status, length of the follow-up, and type of covariates accounted for in the adjusted models….

[T]he present meta-analysis included more than double the number of studies and 10 times the number of participants compared with the previous meta-analysis. Thus, the field now has much stronger evidence that lacking social connections is detrimental to physical health.

Interestingly, the study found that middle-age adults were at greater risk of mortality when lonely or living alone than when older adults experienced those same circumstances. Several explanations were offered, all of them speculative.

Even more sobering is the study’s conclusion that the mortality risk of social isolation and loneliness is comparable with known, well-established risk factors — of obesity, lack of physical activity, substance abuse, irresponsible sexual behavior, mental illness, injury and violence, environmental quality, lack of immunization, and poor access to health care. In fact, the available evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity with the risk from social isolation and loneliness (controlling for multiple other factors) being equivalent to the risk associated with Grades 2 and 3 obesity.

The study concludes with a warning that social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society, with affluent countries having the highest rates of individuals living alone. Those rates are projected to increase. A recent report predicts that loneliness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030, unless action is taken to highlight and publicize social isolation and loneliness as a public health concern.

I will end this post with a personal message to an erstwhile member of FOTM:

Stop deluding yourself that your being alone is because you are super intelligent, misunderstood and unappreciated by the rest of us stupid and mindless little people. If you really are smart, heed this study. Your very life depends on it.


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