Healthy Aging: Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality

Overall, the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality

“Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity”

—House, Landis, and Umberson; Science 1988 

System 1 thinking would suggest the social isolation would have a relatively bigger impact at older ages and that the effect size would not be near established risk factors such as smoking or obesity. Let’s see …

As reported in ScienceDaily  loneliness and social isolation can look very different. For example, someone may be surrounded by many people but still feel alone. Other people may isolate themselves because they prefer to be alone. The effect on longevity, however, is much the same for those two scenarios.

The association between loneliness and risk for mortality among young populations is actually greater than among older populations. Although older people are more likely to be lonely and face a higher mortality risk, loneliness and social isolation better predict premature death among populations younger than 65 years.

Previous research from Holt-Lunstad and Smith puts the heightened risk of mortality from loneliness in the same category as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic. This current study suggests that not only is the risk for mortality in the same category as these well-known risk factors, it also surpasses health risks associated with obesity.

Across studies in which several possible confounds were statistically controlled for, the weighted average effect sizes were as follows: social isolation odds ratio (OR) = 1.29, loneliness OR = 1.26, and living alone OR = 1.32, corresponding to an average of 29%, 26%, and 32% increased likelihood of mortality, respectively.

Read more in: Prescription for living longer: Spend less time alone

If this makes you think of someone, please say “Hello!”.

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