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Loneliness: A Threat of Early Death?

Submitted by on March 30, 2013 – 11:51 PM

Meaning-of-lifeLife, as most of us would relate is challenging. The misfortunes can be in the form of disease, disability or simply discontent. In a layman’s thinking, what certainly makes the going get tough is being alone to deal with such hardships, of feeling as such. But a scientist wouldn’t automatically concur to a layman’s notion without first looking at the available evidence. Even though scientists have debated about this issue for a very long time, some of the recent research work has been meticulous to try and find the answer to this long sought question, “Is there any effect of social isolation and loneliness on the final number of days a person lives?”


Loneliness is a subjective feeling in which a person feels that that he is alone. On the other hand, social isolation is the actual seclusion from all worldly contact irrespective of what an individual feels. Both can lead to one another if present for a long time. A recent study published in Proceedings of National Academy of Science revealed that social isolation is an independent risk factor for early death, despite adjusting for other health co-morbids and sociodemographic factors1. This research, however, contradicts some of the earlier studies addressing the same issue where loneliness (as defined above) was also considered an independent predictor for early mortality.


The investigators explored social isolation amongst civic organizations in 6,500 respondents aged above 52 years or more as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (2004–2005). The study instrument was a questionnaire to ascertain measure of loneliness. The primary outcome measure was all-cause mortality with a mean follow-up 7.25 years. The study showed that  mortality was significantly higher in socially isolated respondents compared to the controls (hazard ratio 1.26, 95% confidence interval, 1.08–1.48 for the top quintile of isolation), but loneliness did not show a significant association with mortality (hazard ratio 0.92, 95% confidence interval, 0.78–1.09).


It will require further studies to delineate other factors such as social and family issues that may precipitate these problems. However, it now appears to have been scientifically proven and quantified that social isolation not only negatively influences a patient’s psychological level of functioning, but is also a precipitant of bodily disease and early death. Are we moving towards an era where doctors will evaluate this subjective loneliness and actual isolation just as rigorously as vital signs? Or are we still a long way from considering these psychological issues of any major death threat? Perhaps, somewhere between the two extremes is the need of the hour!


Suggested reading:

1.       Steptoe, A., Shankar, A., Demakakos, P. & Wardle, J. Social isolation, loneliness, and all-cause mortality in older men and women. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA (2013)



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