Health and Medicine

Loneliness Can Literally Be Deadly

January 6, 2016 | by Ben Taub

Having a fulfilling social life can help stave off a range of health problems, including hypertension and inflammation.
Photo credit: Having a fulfilling social life can help stave off a range of health problems, including hypertension and inflammation. Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Having a supportive network of friends and relatives is important for a number of reasons, and is considered by many to be essential to a fulfilling lifestyle. However, a new study has revealed that a lack of satisfying social relationships can lead to a number of health problems at different stages of life, and can often be more detrimental to one’s physical wellbeing than poor diet or physical inactivity.

Previous studies have indicated the negative impact of loneliness and social isolation on a person’s health, with one paper suggesting that this carries a mortality rate that is roughly comparable to smoking. However, the latest study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to track the physical effects of social remoteness at different phases of a person’s life.

To do so, researchers from the University of North Carolina collected data from four large, nationally representative studies that provided information on the social lives of around 14,000 participants. They looked particularly at two distinct aspects of subjects’ social environments, namely the size of their network of relationships and the quality of these relationships. The second of these factors was determined by observing whether subjects rated their relationships as supportive, critical, loving, annoying, or argumental.

This information was then cross-referenced against data regarding a series of objectively measured biomarkers of physical health, such as systolic and diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, and body mass index. Of particular interest to the researchers was the way in which these characteristics changed as subjects passed through the four life stages of adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and late adulthood.

Results showed that the size of an adolescent’s social network was far more important than the quality of relationships, and that loneliness during this period correlated with an increased risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity. While inflammation is an important part of the body’s natural healing process, excessive inflammation can damage cells, leading to a wide range of chronic conditions.

Social isolation during adolescence was found to increase the risk of inflammation, potentially causing an array of physical conditions. Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Similarly, loneliness in late adulthood was found to generate an increased risk of hypertension that exceeded that of diabetes.

Interestingly, those in middle adulthood ("middle age") tended to be more affected by the quality of their social relationships than the size of their networks, with unfulfilling connections leading to an increased likelihood of obesity. Thus, the researchers conclude that social integration is of the greatest importance during the early and late stages of life, while the level of support provided by one’s peers is the dominant driver of physical health in midlife.

One explanation for this offered by the study authors is that those in the middle years of life tend to naturally be tied up in a vast number of social relationships with parents, children, work colleagues, and others, meaning they are unlikely to suffer from feelings of isolation. Furthermore, these interactions are often most stressful during this period of a person’s lifespan, thus exacerbating the effects of unhealthy relationships.

Commenting on these results, study coauthor Yang Claire Yang said in a statement that those seeking to maintain good health throughout life should be sure to “have a good and healthy diet, and exercise; but also try to have a good social life and connections with other people.”

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