Key to Long, Quality Life Tied to Social Connections

New Study Differentiates Between Loneliness and Isolation

Loneliness and social isolation may not go hand in hand as quality of life or longevity predictors, according to a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America , PNAS.

Baby Boomers, Seniors Take Heed of the Message

The American population is aging; the senior population continues at a swell faster than the younger population, raising the median age in the United States from 35.3 years in 2000 to 37.2 years in 2012, according to Transgenerational.org .

Many people look forward to long lives filled with productive years, facing the challenges life presents. No one thinks to himself, "I'd like to live to be 90 years old, and I don't care what shape my mind or body is in." People want to be vital and useful.

But habits of a lifetime and the inevitable loss of peers and some family members may harken social isolation in later years, particularly after retirement when the social structure of career and employment are gone. This can lead to loneliness, a known risk factor for earlier death, but also lack of social connections and isolation that the PNAS-published study finds is even more a red flag for a decrease in longevity.

Social Isolation Is More than Just Loneliness

Andrew Steptoe , Ph.D., lead author of the social isolation study, and his research partners assessed social isolation in the context of contact with family, friends and civic organizations in 6,500 men and women age 52 and older over an eight-year period. Researchers measured both loneliness, per a standard loneliness questionnaire and noted degrees of social involvement and/or isolation in the research participants.

When all the data was compiled, the results demonstrated that although loneliness is one predictor of early mortality, social isolation was even more so. Loneliness, then, may be one component of social isolation, but the issue is more complex than just loneliness.

Whether social isolation was considered singly or with other variables attributed to shorter longevity rates such as people who smoke, have cardiovascular disease, depression or arthritis, social isolation still rated as a higher factor than loneliness alone in shorter lifespan.

Bottom Line

The importance of this study's findings is that it provides an opportunity for those developing therapies for older adults have an improved insight into factors affecting lifespan and quality of life. It also provides an opportunity for individuals to examine their own social connections and structures with thoughts to the future about how to strengthen or enrich those connections and structures before time moves forward and it is too late to do so.

Babies who are not touched enough or have insufficient human interaction can develop different physical and psychological issues, termed "failure to thrive." This study's results suggest the same thing happens with people throughout the life span, and older adults particularly.

Smack dab in the middle of the baby boomer generation, L.L. Woodard is a proud resident of "The Red Man" state. With what he hopes is an everyman's view of life's concerns both in his state and throughout the nation, Woodard presents facts and opinions based on common-sense solutions.

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