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Too Much Alone Time May Increase Risk of Death

Update Date: Mar 26, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

Some people are constantly surrounded by friends but can never truly escape the nagging sensation of loneliness. Other people have hardly any contact with other people yet do not miss them. While many people who live socially isolated lives, that is not always the case. Researchers have been trying to identify which factor is more likely to contribute to an early death - loneliness, social isolation or a mixture of the two. A recent study conducted by researchers from the University College London has found that social isolation, not loneliness, is a greater risk factor for early death.

As Science Now explains, social isolation is an objective condition in which a person does not have much interaction with other people. On the other hand, loneliness is an emotional condition in which someone does not feel like he or she receives enough from the social interactions that they have. By examining data from 6,500 people over the age of 50 in the United Kingdom, the researchers sought to tease out the difference. The participants answered a questionnaire about how lonely they felt. They were also asked to explain how often they had contact with family, friends, outside social organizations and the like.

Over a seven-year period, the researchers found that socially isolated participants had a 26 percent greater risk of dying, even after researchers controlled for various factors like age and gender. Researchers also checked to see whether the socially isolated individuals felt more lonely than the others; they did not. Intense loneliness also seemed to raise the risk for early death but, once researchers accounted for factors like education and wealth, that correlation disappeared.

Researchers believe that socially isolated individuals may not be receiving the care that they need. "There are plenty of people who are socially isolated but who are perfectly happy with that," lead author Andrew Steptoe said to Science Now. "But even then we should be trying to make sure there's enough contacts with them so that if something does go wrong...they're going to be advised and supported." 

 Other studies have found the opposite, that loneliness is linked to a higher risk of death. That may be explained because Americans and Britons may define friends differently, and the culture of the "stiff upper lip" may change the way that Britons answer questions about loneliness.

Regardless, both American and European populations have grown more isolated in recent years, the Los Angeles Times reports. Nearly a quarter of Americans said in 2004 that they had no one to talk to about important things, an increase from 10 percent in 1985. In Europe, a 2010 study found that over a quarter of people over the age of 50 had contact with family, friends or colleagues only once a month.

The study was conducted by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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