New York Times (September 11, 2012): A Longer Life is Lived in Company

Publication Date: 
Tue, 09/11/2012

YOU die alone, philosophers say. But you could die sooner if you live your life in loneliness. Close connections to friends and family may ward off poor health and premature death, recent research suggests.

Loneliness is a risk factor for functional decline and early death in adults over age 60, according to a University of California, San Francisco study published in July. More than 43 percent of the 1,604 participants reported that they often felt left out or isolated or lacked companionship. In the six-year follow-up period, more than half of the self-identified lonely people had difficulty with basic housekeeping and personal tasks. They also had a 45 percent greater risk of dying earlier than older adults who felt more connected to others.

The majority of lonely people (62.5 percent) were married or living with others - an indication that feeling lonely and being alone are not the same. “It’s not the quantity but the quality of your relationships that matters,” said Dr. Carla M. Perissinotto, a geriatrician who led the study. “You can’t tell who may be feeling lonely. It’s not just a little old lady living all alone.”

The study did not investigate why people said they felt lonely, Dr. Perissinotto added. “Is loneliness biological?” she asked. “Is it socially mediated - meaning are lonely people simply not caring for themselves or not interacting with the health care community? What are the mechanisms at play and what are some practical interventions? That’s where the research needs to go next.”

The health effects of loneliness should not be ignored, she added. “Lonely people aren’t taking the extra step of talking to their doctor or their kids,” she said. “If you don’t talk about it, nobody’s going to know.”

Other studies have found that over time chronic loneliness is associated with high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, a diminished immune response, depression, sleep difficulties, cognitive decline and dementia.