"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Study: Socially isolated and lonely individuals are more more likely to die early

June 20, 2023 – People who’re lonely or socially isolated have a dramatically increased risk of early death, in accordance with a big recent study.

Social isolation increased the chance of early death by 32% and loneliness increased the chance of death by 14%, in accordance with the study published on Monday in a web-based edition of Nature Human BehaviorThe researchers combined data from greater than 2 million adults from 90 previous studies published between 1986 and 2022.

The study also found quite a few links between social isolation, loneliness, cancer, heart problems and death.

Social isolation increased the chance of dying from cancer by 24% and the chance of dying from heart problems by 34%. Loneliness increased the chance of dying from cancer by 9%.

For individuals with heart problems, their risk of dying from any cause (not only heart disease) was increased by 28% in the event that they were socially isolated, and their risk of dying from breast cancer was increased by 51%. For individuals with breast cancer, their risk of dying from a cancer-related cause was increased by 33% in the event that they were socially isolated.

“Therefore, it is important to improve the social relationship status of cancer patients, especially breast cancer patients, to prolong survival,” the authors write.

The researchers defined social isolation as a scarcity of (or limited) social contact with other people, corresponding to having a small social network, infrequent social contacts, or living alone. Loneliness was defined as feeling stressed resulting from having fewer social relationships than desired. Social isolation is taken into account to have objective characteristics, corresponding to having a certain variety of relationships, while loneliness has subjective characteristics measured by how people feel about their relationships.

Previous research has linked social isolation and loneliness to poor health.

The researchers identified 4 essential potential aspects that exist between social isolation, loneliness and risk of death:

  • Altered levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which affects an individual's blood sugar levels, metabolism, inflammatory response, reproductive system and cardiovascular system
  • Effects on mental health, particularly in later life, corresponding to depression and cognitive decline
  • Harmful behavior corresponding to smoking, alcohol consumption, poor weight loss plan and lack of exercise
  • Lower likelihood of receiving routine or emergency medical care resulting from a small social network

The authors write that lonely or socially isolated individuals are also more more likely to receive poor medical care.

“Poor care by health professionals who perceive treatment of this group as difficult or time-consuming further exacerbates negative health outcomes,” they write.

Researchers at Harbin Medical University in China concluded that “a greater focus on social isolation and loneliness can help improve people’s well-being” and reduce the chance of death.