Is this more deadly than obesity?
Social isolation and loneliness may increase the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent.
That’s the latest finding from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT.
Loneliness and social isolation, while similar, are actually different. Social isolation occurs when a person is cut off from contact with others, while a person can feel lonely when in the presence of others because they feel emotionally disconnected.
The researchers analyzed two groups of prior studies regarding the link between loneliness, social isolation and mortality. The first included more than 300,000 adults across 148 studies, and the second was 3.4 million adults across 70 studies.
The first found that adults who were not socially isolated were 50 percent less likely to die a premature death.
The second found that loneliness, social isolation and living alone were all tied to an increased risk of early death.
In addition, the team found that the risk of early death associated with loneliness, social isolation and living alone was equal to or greater than the risk of premature death associated with obesity, a leading health issue.
Their findings correlate to that of bestselling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, who has studied the habits of people who live in blue zones – the five places in the world where a disproportionately high number of residents live to 100.
As a result of his research, Buettner has found that “only about 20 percent of our genes determine how long the average person lives. This means that our lifestyle and environment will greatly shape our health and happiness in later years.” Having a solid social circle, finding meaning in retirement and believing in a higher power are lessons he has learned from residents of the blue zones.
“Genetic predisposition is certainly a part of longevity, but, yes, by itself, it may not be enough,” says Dr. Beata Styka, a geriatric medicine physician at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.
She explains that while we cannot control or alter our genes, we are in control of our habits and certain environmental factors. This includes making the effort to connect with others, something that’s necessary as we age and our social circles change and dwindle.
“Social isolation and loneliness can increase dramatically in retirement,” says Dr. Styka. While it’s important for everyone to have meaningful work and positive relationships with family and friends, “when you decide to retire, it’s important that you have a way to replace the bulk of your now free time with something that is significant to you and gives you a sense of purpose,” says Dr. Styka. “This could be volunteer work, a part time job in another field of interest, a passion project or caring for an aging relative or a young grandchild,” Dr. Styka says.
Chaplain Corky DeBoer, manager of Spiritual Services at Christ Medical Center, agrees and adds that the sense of belonging one can gain from being a part of a faith-based community seems to help longevity.
“Diverse faith traditions support the importance of community and of seeking meaning beyond oneself,” Chaplain DeBoer says. “Spirituality embraces supportive relationships, which in turn helps to reduce the sense of pain and anxiety often experienced when isolated or cut off from such support.” Citing Ecclesiastes 4: verse 9-10, he went on, “Two are better than one… If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”
Chaplain DeBoer says that believing in a Higher Power often shifts the focus off of oneself and can result in living more out of a sense of gratitude. “As people reach out to others or join others to make a difference in their communities or in our world, they experience more fulfillment and meaning in their lives, which also seems to increase longevity.”
Buettner found that regardless of denomination, people who attend faith-based services four times a month add up to 14 years to their life expectancy.
About the Author
Kate Eller was a regional director of public affairs and marketing operations for Advocate Health Care. She enjoys road trips, dogs, minimalism, yoga, hiking, and “urban hiking.”