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If you’re lonely or socially isolated, you may be at a higher risk of premature death, according to a large new study.
There have been many studies on the associations between social isolation, loneliness and the risk of dying early, but some findings have been controversial or conflicting, according to the article published Monday in the journal Nature Human Behavior. These conflicting results could be because the research focuses only on a specific group or region, said Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the department of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. Canli was not involved in the study.
The new paper, however, is a meta-analysis of 90 studies that have examined the links between loneliness, social isolation and premature death among more than 2 million adults. Study participants were followed up for anywhere from six months to 25 years.
People who experienced social isolation had a 32 percent higher risk of dying prematurely from any cause than those who weren’t socially isolated. Participants who reported feeling lonely were 14 percent more likely to die prematurely than those who didn’t.
The research gives us even greater confidence in the importance of social isolation and loneliness as independent risk factors for premature death, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Utah, who is not was involved in the study. Holt-Lunstad was the lead scientist on the recent US Surgeon General’s advisory report on social isolation and loneliness.
Social isolation, as defined by the new study, occurs when someone has an objective lack of contact with other people and can involve having a limited network or living alone.
Loneliness, on the other hand, refers to the subjective discomfort people feel if there is a mismatch between the quality of social relationships they actually have and what they want, according to the meta-analysis. Someone in this situation may feel their relationships are unsatisfying if they don’t meet their needs for connection or intimacy, said Anthony Ong, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Integrative Developmental Science and Human Health Labs at Cornell University in the state. from New York. Ong was not involved in the research.
Americans are spending more and more time in isolation and yet we don’t see it as a danger, especially if it’s by choice. People assume it’s okay and it might even be good for us to be isolated if we don’t feel alone, Holt-Lunstad said by email. Yet these data confirm and expand on previous data documenting risk associated with social isolation independently and independently of loneliness.
Loneliness and isolation in the body
Being socially isolated or lonely can be considered a form of stress, Canli said.
We all might feel lonely from time to time, but when that feeling is permanent, it can act as a form of chronic stress, which is unhealthy, Canli said by email. One way this can happen is through stress hormones negatively impacting the body.
The study authors also looked at the links between loneliness, social isolation, and death among people with cardiovascular disease or breast or colorectal cancer as previous studies have shown that the relationship between social support and health may be a matter of eggs. and chickens, which could lead to a vicious cycle where ill health causes patients to lose social support over time, but patients tend to need social support more than the general population, according to the study.
Participants who were socially isolated and had cardiovascular disease were more likely to die early than those without the disease. And socially isolated people with breast cancer had a higher risk of dying from the disease than those who weren’t socially isolated.
Early death from any cause or cardiovascular disease could also be related to people’s lifestyle behaviors, Canli said: People who feel socially isolated or lonely tend to have unhealthy habits, such as smoking, using alcohol , a poor diet (or) little exercise.
There are several factors that could contribute to social isolation with a stronger effect on the risk of early death than loneliness, experts say.
People who are lonely but not socially isolated experience mental health stress but may be resistant to it because of their social networks even if those networks aren’t quite what anyone wants them to be, said the first author of the paper. study Fan Wang, professor of epidemiology in Harbin. University of Medicine in China.
Having a small social network or little or no contact with the outside world can also make someone less likely to get medical care if they have no one to monitor them, Canli said.
While this meta-analysis is important in providing corroborating evidence for the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness, there is an urgent need to move beyond questions of independent effects to consider their joint interaction, Ong said. who was also among the scientists involved in the Surgeon Generals report, via email.
This further study would pave the way for a deeper understanding and effective interventions, he added.
People experiencing social isolation and loneliness should actively seek social support, Wang said.
Think of maintaining a social network like any other health-promoting activity: exercise regularly, eat right, take care of yourself, Canli said. Make it a priority to nurture your social connections by not limiting when you only greet someone on vacation or thinking of ways to engage in activities that might expose you to new circles of like-minded people, she added.
Public health strategies to address loneliness and social isolation, including awareness, are also needed, Wang said.
Developing interventions with the help of family members and community networks is key, Wang said. The health care system should also develop methods for identifying social isolation and loneliness in patients so that health professionals can provide the appropriate help, she added.
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