Loneliness may not only be miserable — it could also be unsafe, according to new research linking extreme loneliness to an increased risk of death.

Dr. John Cacioppo, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and lead author of the new study, said that feeling lonely in old age may increase your risk of premature death by up to 14 percent. The newly discovered mortality factor is almost as strong as socioeconomic hardship and disadvantage, which has been shown to increase the risk by 19 percent. "Loneliness is a risk factor for early death beyond what can be explained by poor health behaviors," he told USA Today, adding that friends, family, and relationships are often crucial to maintaining quality of life. "Poor quality of sleep hastens aging."

The findings, which were presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in Chicago, suggest that a number of different issues may accelerate aging during loneliness. First, older lonely people may have a hard time recovering from stress and adopting a positive outlook in the face of adversity. Similarly, loneliness appears to disrupt sleep, elevate blood pressure, and increase levels of cortisol — a hormone tied to major depressive disorder.

According to the researchers, it is important to remember that the elevated risk arises from a subjective feeling of isolation rather than physical solitude. "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," Cacioppo explained. “Maintaining quality relationships, engaging in meaningful activities with others and practicing healthy behaviors increase the odds of a long and happier life.”

Loneliness and Your Health

This is not the first study to link loneliness to far-reaching consequences. Cacioppo’s new study adds to a growing series of attempts to understand how feelings of solitude shape our physical health as well as our mental well-being. For example, loneliness can make you more likely to spend money you don’t really have. Similarly, solitude has also been tied to a weakened immune system.

"We are experiencing a silver tsunami demographically,” the researchers concluded. “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."

 

Source: Cacioppo J, et al. Loneliness is a major health risk in older adults. Presented at “The Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.” 2014.