Terminal loneliness

Increasingly in the western world it is becoming normal to live and spend increasing amounts of time on ones own.  However a recent paper, reviewing the health effects of loneliness, suggests that feeling lonely and being alone, may in fact be as bad for our health as obesity.  Mark and I talked about this, and and the reasons why on Radio Live this Sunday morning.

(Click here to listen to the interview)

The study was carried out by researchers at Brigham Young University in the USA, and the paper was published just last month.  It is a meta-analysis of 70 studies, with a total of over 3.4 million participants, followed on average for seven years, and what the researchers found was that there was…

“…a significant effect of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone on odds of mortality. After accounting for multiple covariates, the increased likelihood of death was 26{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for reported loneliness, 29{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for social isolation, and 32{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} for living alone.”  (Click here for the whole article)

The surprising thing about this study was that it showed little difference between objective and subjective reports of loneliness.  To say this another way, these negative health effects impact those who feel alone and may or may not be isolated as much as those who are alone and may or may not be subjectively bothered by it.

Furthermore those percentages quoted above are not small effects, in fact…

“The risk associated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality, including those identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (physical activity, obesity, substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care” (Click here for the whole article)

The surprising thing for me is that these results suggest that underlying mechanism is not in fact loneliness, because those who are alone but may subjectively not feel lonely are still impacted negatively in terms of their mortality.

What we are talking about here is connection, as it is possible to be surrounded by others and be disconnected and feel alone: it is also possible to live on ones own and not feel loneliness but not have meaningful human connections with others.

We all need others to help us regulate and manage our emotions, to help us think, and to regulate physical responses and stress.  The template for this lies in all of us in terms of our earliest attachment experiences, where humans as babies literally need the connection with caregivers to survive.

We know this from the earliest studies of attachment when medical science, in the early 20th century, isolated orphaned children from human touch to avoid infections, and despite all their basic physical needs being fulfilled, these children ultimately died.  It came to be called failure to thrive but could equally be called death from lack of love and connection.

What also seems sad is that our culture needs to keep learning this lesson, as currently our communities, our work, our technologies even our architecture, becomes more and more centered around individualism and an acceptance of being and living alone.

It seems this too is killing people, but I would suggest it is also causing our cultures and community to “fail to thrive.”



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