Severe Loneliness: The Deadly Impact of Being Isolated

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Research has found that extreme loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14 percent. Premature death from loneliness is almost as likely as premature mortality from having disadvantaged socioeconomic status, a factor that heightens the risk by 19 percent. The study, conducted by John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the the University of Chicago, and his colleagues, said this mostly affects seniors who feel isolated or lack strong community connections. The team presented the information at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), held in Chicago from February 13 to 17.

“Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo said in a University of Chicago press release detailing key findings from the study. However, people don’t have to put off heading South for retirement, because perception plays a large role. The study found that loneliness has less to do with physical isolation — instead, the feeling that one is alone is a more important factor. Living alone is not unhealthy if a person is socially engaged and enjoys the company of others. When strong connections are lacking, loneliness and its detrimental side effects can begin to take effect.

For the study, 2,101 people 50 and older were evaluated. To estimate loneliness, researchers used the Health and Retirement Study from 2002 and 2008. The participants were then studied for a six-year period; mortality, loneliness, health behaviors, and social relationships were monitored during this time. During the six-year evaluation, mortality was associated with loneliness, which also increased the potential for other health conditions. In addition to a risk of higher mortality rates, social seclusion was discovered to disrupt sleep, raise stress hormone cortisol levels in the morning, alter gene expression, increase depression, and lessen overall well-being. This was presented at the AAAS conference during the “Rewarding Social Connections Promote Successful Aging“ talk.

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