Is loneliness hazardous to your health?

Loneliness by Yasser Alghofily It's becoming increasingly clear that our relationships are the most important things in our lives - there's no doubt that we're social creatures. Dr. Sue Johnson told us about the "science of love" and the positive impact of contact with a loved one, and Dr. Valerie Whiffen explained the effects on mental health when relationships go wrong. But what about people who are isolated or who feel that they lack meaningful connections? Julianne Holt-Lundstad and her colleagues combined the findings from 148 studies to examine the effects of loneliness on over 308,000 research participants, who were followed, on average, for over 7 years. Their results were surprising.

People who are lonely have a far greater mortality rate than those who have a network of social connections - in fact, people with "adequate social relationships" have at least a 50% greater likelihood of survival than those who are more isolated. This statistic is comparable to the improvements in survival rate when one quits smoking; the impact of loneliness on mortality was found to be greater than the effect of obesity or physical inactivity! This effect was consistent for both men and women, regardless of age, initial health problems, and cause of death. The study noted that social relationships are correlated with healthy behaviours and reduced stress and depression, but the effects of loneliness on health could not be fully explained by these factors - loneliness by itself had detrimental health effects. The researchers believed that social isolation accounted for the increased mortality rate reported for infants in orphanages. Their conclusion:

... there is substantial experimental, cross-sectional, and prospective evidence linking social relationships with multiple pathways associated with mortality.

At first glance, it seems like an easy problem to fix. Outreach programs could be developed in which volunteers or employees interact with people who are socially isolated, and there is some evidence that this might be helpful. However, Holt-Lundstad and her colleagues found that integration in a social network was more important than perceived social support, suggesting that these kinds of community interventions would be insufficient to offset the loneliness-mortality link. Instead, activities or interventions that make it easier for people to maintain contact with a social group might be more helpful.

Studies such as this one suggest that relationships are not just important in our day-to-day lives - social connectedness is probably the most important factor affecting both our emotional and our physical well-being! No wonder the authors at Psych Central listed Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection as one of the most life-changing mental health books they've ever read. Dr. John Cacioppo, the author of Loneliness, will join us for next week's episode of the podcast, so send us your questions.

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.