Do you frequently feel lonely? Even if you live with someone else, do you still feel isolated? Scientific research studies are showing that these conditions are not only bad for your psychological well being, but also hazardous to your physical health.
Researchers from Brigham Young University (Utah, USA) statistically examined 70 previous research studies that had looked at the relationship of social isolation, loneliness, or living alone and the risk of death. This study, just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, wanted to answer this question: how much does living alone or being lonely raise your risk of dying?
The results, joining the medical records of over 3 million people, found that individuals who lived alone, were chronically lonely, or socially isolated, had an overall 30% higher risk of dying during the period of the study.
The researchers noted that a person can be married, or live with other people, and still feel lonely and isolated, and that this is as much of a health risk as living alone. The research also showed that the loneliness risk was greater for middle-aged people than for people over the age of 65.
Why is living with someone better for your health? There are multiple theories, but a principal one is that when you live with someone, you have someone else to nag you to seek health care. A person living alone is more likely to ignore a symptom that could signal a serious disease.
A person living alone is also more likely to engage in riskier behaviors such as smoking, unsafe driving, and even physical inactivity. In contrast, a person living with someone else—in a supportive relationship—is more likely to eat a healthier diet and get regular medical care. For example, a diabetic who needs daily insulin is more likely to keep his diabetes under better control, and a hypertensive is more likely to take his medicine every day.
People who feel isolated have a higher risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poorer sleep, a diminished immune system, along with a higher risk of depression. On the other hand, people who feel accepted and connected seem to be more resistant to chronic disease, and less likely to suffer serious accidents.
The lead author of the study, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, says that the health risk of loneliness is as great as the health risk of obesity, and should be considered a serious public health issue. The researchers suggest that this problem is greater in more affluent countries, and is increasing over time.
Some have referred to the health benefits of living with another person as the “marriage effect”, but it seems like you don’t need to be married to enjoy the health benefits. More research is needed, but it appears that people together in a loving or supportive long-term relationship receive as much benefit, and sometimes more, than people who are legally married.
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