Using data from the U.K. Biobank study, a long-term study tracking the health and genetics of adults across the U.K., the authors looked at five different kinds of social connection reported by 458,146 people with an average age of 57 and then followed them for an average of 12.6 years. They found that each form of social isolation, such as living alone, often feeling lonely, or infrequent visits from friends or family, was linked to a higher risk of dying.
People who were never visited by friends or family were 53% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and had a 39% increased risk of death compared with those who were visited daily. Those who lived alone were 48% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, while not being able to confide in someone or take part in activities also increased mortality risk.
Those experiencing more than one form of social isolation were at an even higher risk. People who lived alone and never saw friends or family had a 77% higher risk of dying from any cause and an even higher risk of dying from heart disease or stroke, compared with those living with someone who saw friends or family daily, the study calculated.
But even visiting just once a month could reduce this risk, the researchers concluded. The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, calculated that people who received friend or family visits on at least a monthly basis had a significantly lower risk of dying, suggesting that there was potentially a protective effect from this social interaction.
“The risk seems to be [among] people who are very isolated, and never ever see friends and family or see them less frequently than once a month,” said the study’s co-author Jason Gill, Professor of Cardiometabolic Health at the University of Glasgow.
“Ensuring that you visit your lonely and isolated relatives is a super helpful thing to do because it seems to be important that people have a visit at least once a month.”
The study did not examine why social isolation and loneliness increased mortality risk, but its lead author, Dr. Hamish Foster, a clinical research fellow in general practice and primary care at the University of Glasgow, said: “It could be that people who are more socially isolated may have some more unhealthy behaviours like smoking or high alcohol intake, for example.” He also suggested that not having someone to help take them to the doctor or encouraging them to seek help when needed, as well as direct biological effects on the immune system, could be factors.
The Guardian report fails to make the obvious link to the impact of lockdowns on mortality. But its sidebar does seem to be onto it, suggesting an article entitled ‘“Socially stunted”: how Covid pandemic aggravated young people’s loneliness‘ to read next.
Worth reading in full.