One of the most unprecedented trends of modern society is the number of people who choose to live alone. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg observed in his 2012 book Going Solo, living alone was virtually unheard of in most world cultures throughout history prior to the 20th century, but an estimated 32.7 million people now live alone in the United States, accounting for about 28 percent of the country’s households today, compared with 17 percent in 1970.
The medical and mental effects of this shift are complex. As Klinenberg notes, many people who live alone still remain highly social and connected with friends and family, so living alone doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is isolated.
But what of those who live alone and are socially isolated? In a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of researchers from University College London attempted to explore the health consequences of those who are isolated from others, and found that limited contact with others increases a person’s overall risk of death over time.
The group, led by Andrew Steptoe, examined data on the 6,500 older adults (aged 52 and up) who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing in 2004, and monitored which participants survived up until last March. The researchers specifically looked at the association between mortality (overall risk of death) and a pair of conditions: social isolation (as indicated by a lack of contact with others) and loneliness (as reflected by participants’ answers on a survey).
In total, 14.1 percent of the people who’d participated in the survey had died in the 8 years after the study was administered, but those who were classified as socially isolated had died at considerably higher rates. Of the most socially isolated respondents, 21.9 percent did not survive to March 2012, as compared with 12.3 percent of the least isolated. Even after the participants’ baseline health and demographic factors were taken into account, being socially isolated still correlated to an increase in their mortality.
Interestingly, though, defining oneself as lonely—via the answers about one’s emotions and psychological state on the survey—did not have the same effect. Those who were lonely did have overall higher mortality, but this was because on average, they were older and had poorer baseline health conditions at the start. When the researchers controlled for baseline health and age, the mortality gap between the lonely and the non-lonely largely vanished.
This indicates that the real danger of living alone is not feeling lonely per se, but having reduced contact with others. One possibility is that an older person who seldom sees friends and family is less likely to get the help they need in managing various ailments, and is probably also less likely to be encouraged to go see a doctor when new health problems pop up. The researchers speculate that living alone might even cause people to have poorer health habits, such as smoking, eating an unhealthy diet and getting less physical activity.
This jibes with previous work by other researchers, such as the fact that living alone with a serious cardiovascular problem makes you more likely to die, and a 2011 Finnish finding that living on your own increases your risk of mortality from an alcohol-related death. Being around others, it seems, helps us ensure that we take better care of ourselves—so if you’re planning on joining the many who have opted to live solo, you’re best off making sure you maintain frequent contact with friends and family.
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