It’s “that” time year – Isolation, Not Loneliness, Shortens Life

We often believe that during holidays everyone, except us, is having a wonderful festive time, surrounded by loving family, caring friends, filled with fun, festivity and happiness.

At the risk of “bah humbug” what I most often heard from clients was holidays were filled with stress, trepidation, family feuds or deep pain at being alone while everyone else seemingly was partying.  

Coupled with studies which suggest that the Christmas/New Year’s holidays are a risk factor for cardiac and noncardiac mortality.* the United Kingdom study on loneliness and isolation of 6,500  had an interesting conclusion:

Loneliness hurts, but social isolation can kill you. 

“The study, by a team at University College London, comes after decades of research showing that both loneliness and infrequent contact with friends and family can, independently, shorten a person’s life. The scientists expected to find that the combination of these two risk factors would be especially dangerous.”

“We were thinking that people who were socially isolated but also felt lonely might be at particularly high risk,” says Andrew Steptoe, a professor of psychology at University College London.”

“To find out, the team studied 6,500 men and women ages 52 and older. All of them had answered a questionnaire back in 2004 or 2005 that assessed both their sense of loneliness and how much contact they had with friends and family. The researchers looked to see what happened to those people over the next seven or eight years.”

“And Steptoe says he was surprised by the result. “Both social isolation and loneliness appeared initially to be associated with a greater risk of dying,” he says. “But it was really the isolation which was more important.”‘

‘”At first, it looked like people who reported greater levels of loneliness were more likely to die, Steptoe says. But closer analysis showed that these people were also more likely to have other risk factors, like being poor and having existing health problems. Once those factors were taken into account, the extra risk associated with loneliness pretty much disappeared, Steptoe says.”‘

“But people who spent very little time with friends and family, or at social events, were more likely to die regardless of income or health status the team reports in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

“It’s not clear why social isolation is linked to mortality. But one possibility is that having other people around has practical benefits as you get older, Steptoe says. For example, they may push you to go see a doctor if you are having symptoms like chest pain, he says. And if you were to lose consciousness, they would call for help.”

Do Facebook friends count? How about texting?

“Other researchers say they are surprised and not necessarily convinced by the new study, even though they say it’s large and well-done.”

‘”It doesn’t negate the loneliness work that’s been done to date,” says Bert Uchino, a University of Utah psychology professor. He says this study may have reached a different conclusion than earlier ones because people’s definition of loneliness is changing in the Internet age.”‘

‘”People … may think that they’re connected to other people because they’re on Facebook,” Uchino says. So they may not report feeling lonely. But that sort of connection, he says, may not have the health benefits of direct contact with other people.”

*   (There are multiple explanations for this association, including the possibility that holiday-induced delays in seeking treatment play a role in producing the twin holiday spikes.)

4 comments on “It’s “that” time year – Isolation, Not Loneliness, Shortens Life

  1. I LOVE this illustration – could be my house on any given day, depending on my critters attitudes!!! LOL!!
    Also enjoyed your book immensely, Peggy! I echo most of the comments that have been posted, but would like to add that I was particularly touched by Lucy and Maui’s relationship during his struggles. It’s always a huge plus to have those “special someones” there for you when you’re going through challenges, and I’m pretty sure Lucy’s devotion to Maui meant the world to him.
    You were all so fortunate to have each other!!


  2. I’m not a professional in any capacity, but I’ve observed people for decades – my students, fellow teachers, etc.

    Humans are meant to be social animals. We reflect values back and forth and are both stimulated and controlled by social interaction. When someone doesn’t have that human interaction, they’re floating untethered without a reason to share, whether laughing, crying, or simply being quiet in the comforting presence of another person. We are just not meant to be alone, as evidenced by the very earliest hominid social groups.

    My mom was an especially social person who was the light of every party. If she wasn’t at a social gathering, she was on the phone with friends and family for hours. But after she developed Alzheimer’s disease she could no longer grasp the abstract nature of a phone call – though she still loved to be in a crowd of people and remained outgoing and gregarious. I suspect on-line interaction is too distant to fill in the space of feeling alone.

    A really interesting article, and a reason to participate in meaningful social groups and keep kids off devices for as long as possible.


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