Being socially isolated from the friends and family you love could raise your risk of dying early, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the University College London found that social isolation alone raises a middle-aged or elderly person's death risk, independently of how lonely he or she feels.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is based on 6,500 men and women, age 52 and older, who participated in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing between 2004 and 2005. The researchers administered questionnaires analyzing the study participants' loneliness levels at the start of the study, and then followed up with them around seven years later.
Researchers found an association between death and social isolation and feeling lonely. When they accounted for factors like demographics and health, only social isolation seemed to affect death risk. Feeling lonely, meanwhile, only seemed to affect early death risk among people who already had health concerns.
"They're dying of the usual causes, but isolation has a strong influence," study researcher Andrew Steptoe, an epidemiologist at University College London, told the Los Angeles Times.
What's interesting about the study is that it separates out loneliness -- which is a subjective feeling -- with social isolation -- which can be more objectively measured. Past research in mice has shown that social connection -- being partnered up, versus being alone -- could actually have protective effects for the brain during heart attack.
And a 2001 article in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine explained just how damaging social isolation can be to health, with author James S. House, Ph.D., comparing its magnitude of risk with that of cigarette smoking.