People who feel consistently lonely have a 14% higher risk of premature death than those who don't, a new study shows.
The impact of loneliness on early death is almost as strong as the impact of being poor, which increased the chances of dying early by 19%, the research found.
"Loneliness is a risk factor for early death beyond what can be explained by poor health behaviors," says psychologist John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. He discussed his research Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago. "Feeling lonely isn't only unhappy; it's unsafe."
To come to these conclusions, Cacioppo and colleagues reviewed survey responses from more than 2,100 adults 55 years and older in the Health and Retirement Study. The researchers controlled for age, gender, socioeconomic status, objective social isolation and poor health behaviors.
In research designed to identify reasons for the association between loneliness and early death, Cacioppo and colleagues have found that feeling lonely and isolated from others can lead to less restful, restorative sleep, raise blood pressure, cause morning increases in the stress hormone cortisol, increase depression and lower the overall feeling of living a meaningful life. "Poor quality of sleep hastens aging."
Some people are happy to be alone, but most thrive in social situations where they enjoy support and rapport with others, says Cacioppo, co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connections.
People "can escape the clutches of loneliness as they age" by staying in touch with former colleagues, maintaining meaningful relationships and participating in family activities, he says. "People underestimate the importance of sharing good times with friends and family."
Cacioppo says, "What's really important is companionship and mutual assistance and protection. Having high-quality relationships with a few people is one of the keys to happiness and longevity. The stresses and challenges of life are more easily endured if we can share them with someone in whom we can confide and trust."
Some of the problems that contribute to loneliness as people age include loss of mobility, loss of hearing and blindness, he says.
Retiring to Florida or Arizona to live in a warmer climate "isn't necessarily a road map to happiness if it means you lose the relationships you developed over a lifetime," Cacioppo says. You'll benefit if you develop new friendships in the new location, he says.
"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically as the Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age," he says. "Maintaining quality relationships, engaging in meaningful activities with others and practicing healthy behaviors increase the odds of a long and happier life.
"Older adults who maintain meaningful, satisfying relationships weather life's stressors to emerge happier, healthier and wiser than people who do not," he says.
Psychologist Joe Burgo, author of Why Do I Do That? and the founder of afterpsychotherapy.com, agrees that feeling connected with others is important to people. "Human beings are social animals, expressing our sense of who we are via relationships, both personal and professional. As we grow older, many of those relationships come to an end. We retire from our jobs and often lose touch with colleagues. Our children may relocate. Friends or family members die.
"Not only do we grieve and feel lonely without these people in our lives, but our very sense of self is challenged," he says. "That's why it's critical to remain active and engaged in your world, tending old friendships and forging new ones, taking part in group activities that connect you to other people."