Of all the health stories I’ve written recently, one has stuck in my mind. It’s a thorough review of all the good-quality research there’s been into social connections and lifespan.
It’s more than 20 years since a study first found that, taking other factors into account, people who were socially isolated were more likely to die during the next few years than people who had plenty of social connections. And not from suicide, but from all types of causes.
The latest review shows that people who are socially isolated (measured by a range of factors, including living alone, taking part in social or sporting activities, and having close friends or confidants) are actually twice as likely to die over any given time period.
That’s a huge increase in risk, comparable those well-known health risks, smoking, obesity and alcoholism. Yet isolation, or its better-known cousin loneliness, are rarely taken seriously as health risks that can be addressed.
Most of us go through periods of loneliness in our lives, although it seems almost taboo to admit to it. It’s a stigma, a sign of not belonging. Think of the classic description of the neighbourhood oddball who suddenly commits a horrible crime. ‘He was a bit of a loner,’ people say, ‘he kept himself to himself’.
I’m not planning on any horrible crimes, but I’ve certainly felt lonely at times in my life. Moving to a new town for a new job, where I found it hard to fit into the office clique, was one low point. I’d have given anything for someone to go for a drink with at the end of a difficult day – yet I’d have died rather than tell my colleagues how lonely I was.
And I was lucky, with sympathetic friends and family at the end of a telephone line. I dread to think how it must feel if this is your whole life.
So, although the study is startling in its conclusions, I’m not actually that surprised. Protracted periods of loneliness or isolation seem to sap the will to get on with life, to eat well and exercise, keep off the booze and cigarettes. It may be that illness itself is socially isolating (although the studies were in healthy people) or it may be that our social lives encourage healthy behaviour. It may just be that we deal better with the stresses and strains of life if we have the support of others.
Whatever the cause, keeping up friendships and getting involved with life is clearly the key. The research backs a cheering recent study that found people’s happiness in retirement was most closely related to their levels of social activity and numbers of friends. As one of the researchers was quoted as saying, people simply need to be surrounded by people, as fish are by water. We may not notice when all is going well, but we certainly do notice when they’re gone.