According to research by a professor at the University of Chicago, extreme loneliness can increase an older person's risk of premature death by 14%.
This makes extreme loneliness a risk factor for premature death that is nearly as potent as disadvantaged socioeconomic status. Disadvantaged socioeconomic status is known to cause an increase of 19% in risk of early death.
The researcher notes that a 2010 study even found that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity does.
John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, says he found dramatic differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health between lonely and socially engaged older people.
Loneliness can have profound health consequences for older people. Disrupted sleep, elevated blood pressure, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increased depression are all reported in people experiencing extreme loneliness. This can also cause problems for the body's immune system and generally lower overall feelings of well-being.
Socially engaged people are more resilient
The physical and mental resilience of older people who have satisfying relationships is much stronger than in lonely older people, Cacioppo says, as they are more able to "bounce back" from adversity.
"Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn't necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you," says Prof. Cacioppo. "Population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health all the more important."
"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically. The baby boomers are reaching retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn 65. People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality."
Prof. Cacioppo emphasizes the importance of taking part in family traditions, keeping in touch with former work colleagues and making time for family and friends. He says that this gives older people a chance to connect with the people they care about.
Cacioppo argues that humans have evolved to work together to survive and so it is natural that people prefer companionship over being alone. He says that social situations provide mutual support for people and allows us to develop rapport.
There are three core dimensions to healthy relationships, according to Cacioppo and his colleagues:
- "Intimate connectedness" from having someone in your life who "affirms who you are"
- "Relational connectedness" from having mutually rewarding face-to-face contact with people
- "Collective connectedness" from feeling that you are part of a group "beyond individual existence."
Interestingly, Cacioppo's work finds that it is not physical isolation itself that causes the health problems associated with loneliness, but the "subjective sense of isolation" experienced by some older people.
However, Cacioppo acknowledges that some aspects of ill health experienced by people as they age - such as loss of hearing or sight - could place people at further risk of becoming isolated and consequently lonely.
In 2013, Medical News Today reported on a study from the UK that found social isolation is tied to a shorter lifespan. Although Cacioppo - who specializes in analyzing the health effects of loneliness - found that the UK-based study contradicted some of his findings, he suggested that this could be due to cultural differences between Americans and older British people.