Loneliness Linked to Death, Disability
Studies Show That People Who Live Alone or Feel Lonely May Have Worse Health
Tracking the Impact of Loneliness on Health
In the second study, Perissinotto and her team followed more than 1,600 seniors older than 60 for six years, from 2002 to 2008. Study participants were asked if they felt left out, isolated, or if they lacked companionship.
Forty-three percent of people in the study said they felt lonely at least some of the time. Nearly 63% of people who reported loneliness were married or had a partner.
People who said they were lonely were 45% more likely to die during the study than people who didn't feel isolated. Nearly 23% of lonely people died, compared to 14% of people who said they didn't feel lonely. That risk remained even after researchers adjusted their data to remove the influence of other factors known to affect life expectancy, such as depression, income, age, and race.
Loneliness was also tied to a greater likelihood that a person would have difficulty doing basic daily activities such as walking, climbing stairs, eating, bathing, or dressing.
Perissinotto, who makes house calls to her elderly patients, says she was surprised at the big impact of loneliness.
"Finding the association was a little bit sad," she says, because it made her realize that her patients who reported being lonely were at even greater risk of decline.
"I have a patient who's been losing weight," she says. "She has resources, but she doesn't enjoy eating anymore because it's not a social experience. She's lonely and she says it straight out: 'I'm lonely.'"
Perissinotto says, in this case, getting her patient to eat regularly will depend not just on a getting her a meal, but on making sure there's a person there at mealtimes to engage her in conversation.
But loneliness doesn't always cause health problems. Sometimes, physical problems can bring on loneliness.
Perissinotto says she has another patient who's still mentally sharp, but has trouble climbing the stairs of her apartment building so she rarely gets out of her house to meet other people.
Getting Help for Loneliness
Beyond individual cases, previous studies suggest that there are myriad ways loneliness harms health.