Extreme Loneliness Can Be Deadly for Older People

People who suffer from loneliness were almost twice as likely to die over a six year study period than others

Photo: Nocturnatum

Older people who suffer from extreme loneliness have a 14 percent higher risk of death than those who do not report feeling lonely, according to research recently presented at the American Association for Advancement of Science conference in Chicago. Psychology professor John Cacioppo, who led the research team, puts that in context by comparing it obesity (loneliness is twice as dangerous, he says) and poverty (which increases the risk of early death by 19 percent).

Capioppo and his team began their study of loneliness by recruiting 2,000 people, all 50 years old or older, and following them for six years. The researchers recorded the participants’ health and habits and regularly asked them about their relationships and whether they felt lonely. At the end of the study period, the team statistically controlled for demographics and behaviors that influence health and social isolation. (Someone can chose to live alone or maintain few connections with others, without actually feeling lonely, or, conversely, have plenty of social contact while still feeling alone.) Loneliness, it turned out, still remained a significant predictor of early death in the participants.

Here’s the Guardian on what the loneliness problem potentially means for society:  

The findings point to a coming crisis as the population ages and people increasingly live alone or far from their families. A study of loneliness in older Britons in 2012 found that more than a fifth felt lonely all the time, and a quarter became more lonely over five years. Half of those who took part in the survey said their loneliness was worse at weekends, and three-quarters suffered more at night. 

The work presented at AAAS differs from the results of a 2013 study, which reported that social isolation, not the feeling of loneliness itself, increased risk of death. The authors of that study, however, statistically excluded many of the symptoms of loneliness, such as depression, from their analysis, which means they likely underestimated the true effect loneliness has on a person, said John Cacioppo, lead researcher of the results presented at AAAS, in an email.

On the other hand, past studies have correlated loneliness with health impacts, including elevating blood pressure, causing sleep abnormalities, increasing stress hormone levels and changing gene expression in immune cells, Cacioppo reported at AAAS. According to Cacioppo, just like a headache or a stomachache may be physical manifestations of a larger malady, the feeling of loneliness is meant to alert you that something is wrong. “The pain and aversiveness of loneliness, of feeling isolated from those around you, is part of a biological early warning machinery to alert you to threats and damage to your social body, which you also need to survive and prosper,” he says in a TED talk.

Here, you can hear more about what Cacioppo has to say on the problem: 

The lethality of loneliness: John Cacioppo at TEDxDesMoines

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