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Social Connections Can Save Lives

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 5, 2013

Loneliness and social isolation shorten the lives of older men and women, researchers have found, but social isolation is more deadly.

Andrew Steptoe, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, led a study of 6,500 men and women aged 52 and older who enrolled in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging and assessed their risk of death during a seven year period ending in 2012. In a Psychology Today article by Faith Brynie, Steptoe explained that loneliness and isolation are related but different. Social isolation is an objective measure of how much contact people have with family, relatives, friends, neighbors, and people in their communities, he said, while loneliness is a subjective experience. The team analyzed the social connections of participants, and a questionnaire was used to measure loneliness.

Researchers found that loneliness is often associated with depression, poverty and illnesses that limit mobility, such as lung and heart diseases and arthritis. But not all lonely people are isolated, and some isolated people don’t feel lonely because they are comfortable with their circumstances. Steptoe and colleagues wanted to untangle the two influences.

After accounting for health and demographics, the team found social isolation produced a higher mortality risk. During the study period, 21.9 percent of the socially isolated people died compared with 12.3 percent of those who were less isolated. Findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

A story by Michele Solis in Scientific American suggests even brief social contacts, such as chats with a neighbor or small talk with casual acquaintances, can be good for us. Still, Steptoe told the Scientific American that the research doesn’t negate the downside of loneliness. "There is ample evidence that loneliness relates to well-being and other health outcomes besides death," he says. "But our study suggests a broader view of beneficial social relationships. They're not simply to do with close emotional relationships."

Social isolation among the elderly is a growing problem in many countries. Steptoe’s paper reports that in 2011, people living alone in the U.S. comprised 28 percent of all households, compared with 17 percent in 1970. The proportion of Americans who said they had no one to talk to about important matters increased from 10 percent in 1985 to 24 percent in 2004.

In Canada, the National Seniors Council is studying elderly isolation, which it calls a complex issue that touches on policy areas including health, income security, care giving, elder abuse and transportation. In China, traditional reverence for the elderly is being eroded by a burgeoning population of old people, harsh economic times, and years of policy forcing couples to have only one child. Recently revised Chinese law requires adult children visit and aid elderly parents or risk fines and law suits.

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