By Traci Watson
You say you want to be alone? Think again. Researchers have found that older people with fewer human contacts are more likely to die — even if they're happy in their solitude — than are people with richer social lives. The study adds to the debate over whether loneliness, social isolation, or some combination of the two leads to higher mortality.
Social isolation is an objective condition in which people have little interaction with others. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotional state felt by people who are dissatisfied with their social connections. "Someone who's socially isolated is likely to be lonely, and vice versa, but that's not completely the case," says epidemiologist and lead author Andrew Steptoe, of University College London.
To tease apart the effects of being alone versus just feeling lonely, Steptoe and his colleagues examined data from 6500 Britons aged 50 and up who had filled out questionnaires assessing their levels of loneliness. The researchers also tabulated the subjects' contacts with friends, family, religious groups and other organizations to gauge their social connections. Then they counted how many subjects died over a seven-year period.
The most socially isolated subjects had a 26 percent greater risk of dying, even when sex, age and other factors linked to survival were accounted for, the researchers reported online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They then tweaked their model to determine whether the connection to death was due to the fact that isolated people are often lonely. It wasn't.
The researchers then explored the connection between loneliness itself and death. Intense loneliness also appeared to raise the risk of death by 26 percent — until the team took into account a host of other factors linked to survival, including wealth, education and the presence of health problems. Once their impact had been accounted for, the scientists discovered that loneliness on its own didn't make people more vulnerable to death.