You live alone. The “friends” you see the most are on a sitcom. You’re primary source of social contact is Facebook. If this sounds like you, you could be in trouble. It has long been known that loneliness can increase the risk of mental health. However, there is mounting evidence that loneliness can also impair your physical health.
A recent meta analysis looked at the relationship between loneliness and mortality across 70 studies with a total of 3,407,134 participants followed for an average of 7 years. The participants were measured on reported loneliness (how emotionally lonely they subjectively felt), social isolation (objectively measured social contact), and whether or not they lived alone. The researchers found that loneliness increased morality risk whether it was subjectively or objectively measured. The mortality risk increased 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation and 32% for living alone (after adjusting for potential confounders). This is greater than the mortality risk associated with being obese! Here’s a chart from a previous meta analysis from the same researchers:
There appear to be two pathways leading from loneliness to worsening physical health.
[The first] hypothesis suggests that social relationships may provide resources (informational, emotional, or tangible) that promote adaptive behavioral or neuroendocrine responses to acute or chronic stressors (e.g., illness, life events, life transitions). The aid from social relationships thereby moderates or buffers the deleterious influence of stressors on health… [The second hypothesis] proposes that social relationships may be associated with protective health effects through more direct means, such as cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and biological influences that are not explicitly intended as help or support. For instance, social relationships may directly encourage or indirectly model healthy behaviors; thus, being part of a social network is typically associated with conformity to social norms relevant to health and self-care.
What should you do if you’re lonely? The researchers said,
because social isolation and loneliness are often weakly correlated, simply increasing social contact may not mitigate loneliness. Likewise, exclusively altering one’s subjective perceptions among those who remain objectively socially isolated may not mitigate risk. The evolutionary perspective of loneliness… presents loneliness as an adaptive signal, similar to hunger and thirst, that motivates one to alter behavior in a way that will increase survival. Accordingly, loneliness is a powerful motivator to reconnect socially, which, in turn, increases survival and opportunity to pass on genes. Consistent with this perspective, intervention attempts to alter the signal (e.g., hunger, loneliness) without regard to the actual behavior (e.g., eating, social connection) and vice versa would likely be ineffective.
Loneliness is a grossly under-recognized health risk. It is especially concerning given that technology continues to drive away direct human interaction. If you feel lonely, make an effort to spend more time with family and friends. Make new friends if need be. If you feel intensely lonely you should consider seeing a therapist as well.
Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, et al. “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality A Meta-Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science10.2 (2015): 227-237.
Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton. “Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review.” PLoS medicine 7.7 (2010): e1000316.