Social isolation vs loneliness

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A new study links social isolation, more than loneliness, to premature death.

Social isolation is where a person has little actual interaction with others. This is different from loneliness, which is a subjective feeling that your social connections fall short of what you desire.

The study surprised researchers who did not anticipate finding the connection between people who were happy in their solitude to early death. One might assume that if they are happy, they live the fullest life, but this is apparently not true.

Isolation more damaging than loneliness

For this study, researchers wanted to isolate the effects of a lonely old age and an isolated-by-choice old age to see if there was any relationship tying the circumstances to premature death.

Andrew Steptoe of University College London and his colleagues assessed social isolation in 6,500 men and women aged 52 or older. They measured social isolation in terms of the amount of contact with family, friends or organizations. The participants were followed for more than seven years. Deaths were noted during that period.

When they analyzed results from loneliness and social isolation measures together with the mortality rates, they found that premature death was higher among the more voluntarily isolated than among the lonely. This was true even after adjusting for variables. The socially isolated individuals had a 26 percent higher risk of dying early.

Efforts should be made to reduce isolation

“The association of social isolation with mortality was unchanged when loneliness was included in the model,” stated Steptoe. This means that loneliness was not a factor in the premature death, even for those who were also socially, voluntarily isolated.

While loneliness may be bound to other factors influencing an early death, willful social isolation is not one of them. “Although both isolation and loneliness impair quality of life and well-being efforts to reduce isolation are likely to be more relevant to mortality,” concluded Steptoe.

It seems that while the crotchety old man down the road may be happy to be alone, it would increase his longevity if he were to know he had ready access to people, to know he was in fact not alone.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Photo by John Nyboer

 
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