Loneliness and Isolation Can Shorten Life Span as Much as Obesity

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Researchers have discovered that isolation has a wide range of negative consequences on psychological well being and physical health. Additionally, it can shorten one’s lifespan.

While researching a broad range of studies, the big picture emerged showing the impact that loneliness can have:

  • Strong interpersonal relationships are critical for survival across the entire lifespan;
  • Social isolation is a strong indicator in the risk of death;
  • If social stimulation is not sufficient, affected areas include, reasoning, memory performance, hormone homeostasis, brain grey/white matter, connectivity, and function, and resilience to physical and mental disease;
  • The feelings of loneliness can spread throughout a social network, causing negatively skewed social perception, escalating morbidity and mortality, and, in older people, precipitating the onset of dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease.

People who are experiencing loneliness can have impaired immune systems making them less resistant to disease and infection.

Humans were meant to be social and they benefit psychologically and physically from social interaction. People who belong to multiple groups, such as sports clubs, hobby groups, and churches have been found to reduce the risk of future depression by 25 percent.

“We are social creatures. Social interplay and cooperation have fueled the rapid ascent of human culture and civilization. Yet, social species struggle when forced to live in isolation. From babies to the elderly, psychosocial embedding in interpersonal relationships is critical for survival,” according to Danilo Bzdok, associate professor in the biomedical engineering department at McGill University and Canada CIFAR Artificial Intelligence Chair.

“Loneliness has accelerated in the past decade. Given the potentially severe consequences, this can have on our mental and physical health, there is growing recognition and political will to confront this evolving societal challenge. As one consequence, the United Kingdom has launched the ‘Campaign to End Loneliness’ – a network of over 600 national, regional, and local organizations to create the right conditions for reducing loneliness in later life,” stated co-author Robin Dunbar, emeritus professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford.

Another study conducted at Brigham Young University compared the effects of loneliness and isolation to that of obesity on one’s lifespan. There is more research that compares the health impact of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and drinking alcohol excessively.

The authors of the study wrote: “The present obesity epidemic had been predicted. Obesity now receives constant coverage in the media and in public health policy and initiatives. The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago — although further research on causal pathways is needed, researchers now know both the level of risk and the social trends suggestive of even greater risk in the future.”

Early mortality was clearer in older people who were isolated. However, researchers discovered that the increased risk for early death is actually greater for the younger populations.

The study learned that “Lack of social connections had a negative impact on a person’s physical health.”

By Jeanette Vietti


Futurity: Isolation can cut your life short
CBS: Too much “alone time” may shorten your life
Nature: Social isolation shortens lifespan

Image Courtesy of Bob Cotter’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


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