Loneliness: A Silent Risk of Early Death

Summary: A new study using UK Biobank data highlights the deadly risks of social isolation, revealing that never being visited by friends or family is linked to a 39% increased risk of death.

Analyzing social interactions of over 450,000 adults, the study found that objective measures of social interaction, like visits and group activities, are more strongly related to mortality than subjective feelings of loneliness.

Notably, regular visits from friends or family significantly reduce this risk, offering a protective effect against the consequences of isolation.

Key Facts:

  1. The study involved 458,146 UK Biobank participants, with a follow-up period of 12.6 years, during which 33,135 participants died.
  2. Objective social interactions, particularly visits from friends and family, showed a stronger correlation with mortality than subjective feelings of loneliness.
  3. The research indicates that interventions to increase social visits could significantly lower the mortality risk for isolated individuals.

Source: BMC

Never being visited by friends or family is associated with an increased risk of dying, according to a study published in BMC Medicine.

The authors suggest that their findings could be used to help identify patients at a higher risk of dying due to social factors, and to develop more effective interventions to combat the increased risk of death associated with social isolation.

This shows a man sitting on a bench.
The authors found that all five types of social interaction were independently associated with mortality from any cause. Credit: Neuroscience News

Although previous research has identified associations between deaths due to any causes and both a ‘sense of loneliness’ and living alone, the combined impacts of different types of social interaction on mortality has been unclear.

Hamish Foster and colleagues used data from 458,146 adults recruited to UK Biobank to investigate the association between mortality and five types of social interaction. Participants were recruited between 2006 and 2010 and had a mean age of 56.5 years.

The participants completed a questionnaire on recruitment during which they answered questions about five types of social interaction: how often they were able to confide in someone close to them and how often they felt lonely (subjective measures); and how often they were visited by friends and family, how often they participated in a weekly group activity, and whether they lived alone (objective measures).

After a median 12.6 years follow-up, 33,135 of the participants had died based on linked death certificates.

The authors found that all five types of social interaction were independently associated with mortality from any cause. Overall, increased mortality was more strongly associated with low levels of the objective measures of social interaction compared to low levels of the subjective measures.

The strongest association was for individuals who were never visited by friends or family, who were at a 39% associated increased risk of death.

Furthermore, the benefit of participating in weekly group activities was not observed in participants who never had friends or family visit — participants who never received visits but did join group activities had a comparable associated increased risk of death to those who had no visits and joined no activities (50% and 49% respectively).

However, participants who received friend or family visits on at least a monthly basis had a significantly lower associated increased mortality risk, suggesting that there was potentially a protective effect from this social interaction.

The authors caution that although the overall strength of association is likely to be generalisable, the sample data from UK Biobank is not fully representative of the general UK population, and that the social interaction measures they assessed were self-reported and relatively simple.

The authors suggest that further research could investigate the effects of other types of social interaction on mortality, or explore how much change in a type of interaction is needed to best benefit socially isolated people.

About this loneliness and morality research news

Author: Alex Durk
Source: BMC
Contact: Alex Durk – BMC
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in BMC Medicine

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