Contact: Páraic O’Súilleabháin
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Loneliness can be lethal: It has the same impact on longevity as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and also increases the risk for high blood pressure and obesity.
But in those aged 70 and older—a rapidly growing age bracket—feeling lonely may not shorten life after all, as long as you live with someone. Even among those who live alone, earlier death is only tied to loneliness under surprising conditions, shows a path-breaking study printed in the July/August issue of Psychosomatic Medicine, journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.
While past research has suggested that emotional and social loneliness are different, this is the first scientific study to untangle the differing effects they may have on risk of death for older adults. People who are emotionally lonely feel isolated, abandoned, left out; social loneliness, on the other hand, affects adults who don’t have a wider network of friends and acquaintances, they don’t feel a sense of belonging to any community.
The study found that social loneliness wasn’t linked to lifespan for adults who live alone or with others, says lead author Páraic O’Súilleabháin, PhD, Lecturer in Psychology at the School of Psychology, National University of Galway in Ireland. He worked with collaborators Andrew Steptoe, PhD, and Stephen Gallagher, PhD., on this study.
The 413 study participants were 70 to 103 years old at the start, with 253 living alone and 160 not alone. They all took surveys assessing their levels of social and emotional loneliness; their independence in daily life (needing help or not with basics like bathing, eating, dressing, etc.); and personality traits. Researchers also took account of age, education, income, marital status, sex and depression, so the findings could not be chalked up to these other factors.
A follow-up study 19 years later to see who was still alive showed that “emotional loneliness is the critical toxic factor for mortality,” says O’Súilleabháin. Even at that, emotional loneliness correlated with a shorter life only for those who resided alone. Why not for those who felt abandoned although they shared their home? “Even if you say you feel isolated, if you’re living with another person it may provide opportunities for more meaningful interaction,” he speculates.
It would seem that having a social network, a sense of belonging to a community of comrades, is also important for avoiding loneliness. “But you can be lonely in the middle of a group—in fact, a group can be the loneliest place in the world,” suggests O’Súilleabháin. “Intense one-to-one attachment to someone can be worth more to an individual than large-scale groups, it can help you not feel isolated.” That is not to suggest that large social groups are not important, he added. “In fact they can provide opportunities for meaningful attachments that can reduce emotional loneliness.”
Surprisingly, the more independent someone living alone was—the less they needed any help with daily functions—the greater the risk their emotional loneliness posed for death. That may be because those who need help get some built-in one-on-one companionship, O’Súilleabháin speculates.
Feelings of abandonment and anxiety can increase blood pressure, stress hormone output and inflammation while also disrupting sleep— health dangers that may threaten life. “It’s hard to know what all the pathways are,” he adds. “We need more research into it.” His suggestion for older people living alone who would like to extend their life: “Try and develop close emotional attachments to people you can share meaningful feelings with.”
Open Access Study Link Page: https://www.paraicosuilleabhain.com
The American Psychosomatic Society (APS) (www.psychosomatic.org), founded in 1943, is an international multidisciplinary academic society that organizes an annual scientific meeting and educational programs. Psychosomatic Medicine is its scientific journal. The membership of over 700 is composed of academic scientists and clinicians in medicine, psychiatry, epidemiology, health psychology and allied health services. The mission of the APS is “to advance and integrate the scientific study of biological, psychological, behavioral and social factors in health and disease.”