There’s a big difference between being alone and social isolation. Although it’s good to recharge every once in a while by, for example, taking long solitary walks, constantly keeping yourself apart from others could cause damaging health effects. So much so, that you may be putting yourself at the same risk for death as people who smoke or have high blood pressure, according to a new study.

Social Isolation Impacts Health

The “power of isolation as a marker of poor health cannot be ignored,” Dr. Matthew Pantell, lead author of the study, and his team of researchers wrote, according to Medscape. Previous studies have already shown how being alone for extended periods of time could negatively affect a person’s health. For example, a study from last year showed that adults who simply lived alone were 80 percent more likely to develop depression when compared to adults who lived with their families.

Dr. Pantell’s team, from the University of California Berkley-University of San Francisco Joint Medical Program, looked at the collective data of 16,849 adults from both the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the National Death Index. Participants who were surveyed were asked four questions regarding their sociability: they were asked about their marital status, frequency of contact with other people, participation in religious activities, and participation in other club or organization activities. For each field, they received a score of zero or one, depending on what they answered, with pro-social answers receiving a one and anti-social answers receiving a zero — the highest rating for a social person was a four; the lowest was a zero.

The researchers found that among both men and women, those who rated closer to four were least likely to die from high blood pressure or smoking. Conversely, those who rated closer to zero had the greatest chance of dying from high blood pressure or smoking, with likeliness of dying from these factors increasing as their scores got closer to zero.

“Our results emphasize the value of identifying social isolation as a potentially modifiable risk factor for premature death,” the researchers wrote.

Rising Rates of Loneliness and A Possible Solution

Feelings of loneliness among adults over 45 years old have doubled since the 1980s, according to a study by the American Association of Retired Person (AARP). Currently, rates of loneliness are at about 35 percent for this age group. Another study found that people with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive longer than those who remained isolated. “The modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships,” the authors of that study wrote. “Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives.”

Dr. Pantell and his team concluded that asking similar questions in a clinical setting could help doctors identify certain risk factors for mortality in patients. “In a busy clinical setting, adding these items to standardized screening questions administered electronically or by nonmedical clinic staff and highlighting patients’ responses for the physician when a threshold is reached would not add substantially to clinical burden, and it could potentially help in discerning which patients have worse health outcomes and targeting those patients for increased surveillance.”

Source: Pantell M, Rehkopf D, Jutte D, et al. Social Isolation: A Predictor of Mortality Comparable to Traditional Clinical Risk Factors. American Journal of Public Health. 2013.