Loneliness and mortality

This article from the Guardian – “Loneliness twice as unhealthy as obesity for older people, study finds” – is making the rounds on Facebook. It tells a grim tale: Scientists found that the loneliest were nearly twice as likely to die during their six-year study than the least lonely.

Oddly phrased headline, though. Did the aforementioned study find that loneliness kills people, or do other conditions (like depression, or chronic disease, or mental illness, or untreated substance abuse) cause both social isolation (loneliness) and early mortality?

The Guardian article seems to suggest the former: that loneliness itself is worth worrying – and writing – about. And solutions to the loneliness problem ought to focus on loneliness as the thing to be fixed. So for instance, the article quotes a psychologist who suggests people ought to avoid moving far away when they retire. And the Charity Director at AgeUK makes the following pitch:

“It’s time we took loneliness seriously as a threat to a happy and healthy later life. We need to do more to support older people to stay socially connected. This is a big part of our job at Age UK and everyone can help by being a good friend or neighbour to the older people they know…”

But the authors of the underlying study aren’t so sure.

While they note that older people get lonely for the reasons one might expect – death of a spouse, geographic relocation, a dwindling social network as friends relocate and/or die – the researchers also flag changes in “physical health” as a key predictor of loneliness. And then they double-score underline it:

Importantly improvements in physical health and improved social relationships were linked to reduced levels of loneliness.

This result suggests that strategies to combat loneliness are not confined to the arena of social interventions such as befriending services, which aim to build and support social embeddedness, but may also result from the treatment of chronic and long-term health conditions.

It looks like the Guardian may have gone off the rails a little in their write-up of this study. The Guardian piece gives advice on how to avoid getting lonely, based on their premise that becoming lonely endangers one’s health.

But the study suggests kind-of the opposite: that illness drives loneliness – or more accurately, that illness drives the correlation between loneliness and mortality found in this study. And that “befriending services” for the elderly probably are not going to get it done if chronic and long-term health conditions go unaddressed.

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