Social isolation—the unrecognized killer

Consumer Reports News: August 09, 2010 09:44 AM

"Thanks, you’ve saved my life!" It’s a line I use without much thought, if a friend gets me out of a hole, or a co-worker helps me out on a tight deadline. But new research suggests it could be literally true.

Researchers spotted 20 years ago that social isolation is not just bad for a person, but can actually shorten their life span. Since then, there’s been a steady stream of research pointing in the same direction. Yet loneliness is not treated as a serious health risk, in the same way as, say, smoking or obesity.

Indeed, some worry that our lives have become less sociable during the last 20 years, with more people living alone, fewer people living in the same neighborhoods as their families, more electronic communication and less face-to-face contact.

So it’s a good time to take stock of the research about social isolation. A new study does just that, extracting data from a range of studies that measure social connection and life span.

The results are startling. Someone who has a poor social network—for example, someone who lives alone and has few or no close friends, doesn’t take part in social or sporting activities, perhaps works alone or is unemployed—is twice as likely to die within any given time period, compared to people with a good social network.

That’s a bigger risk than from smoking cigarettes, being obese, or being an alcoholic. Yet when did you last see a healthy living campaign about social isolation?

The results hold true at all ages, so it’s not just something that affects elderly people living alone. And, indeed, the studies that just looked at whether someone lived alone, without considering other measures, didn’t show a strong link to life span. So it’s certainly possible to live alone but have a healthy social network.

Of course, the reasons may be complex. We don’t know exactly how social isolation is linked to higher risk of death, and we don’t know whether social isolation causes poor health, or perhaps the other way around. However, most of the studies were done in healthy people, so it seems unlikely that the researchers were just measuring the socially isolating effects of illness.

What you need to know. It may be a cliché, but the song lyrics seem to hold true: people need people. The stronger your links with others, the longer you are likely to live.

Anna Sayburn, patient editor, BMJ Group has partnered with The BMJ Group to monitor the latest medical research and assess the evidence to help you decide which news you should use.

Aaron Bailey

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