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Beat social isolation and live longer

Published on 27 March 2013 11:30 AM

New research suggests that beating social isolation can help you live longer.

A recent study has made a link between people over 52 years who are isolated from family and friends, and a 26% higher death risk over a seven-year period.


The survey of 6,500 older citizens finds that this risk is present, regardless of whether they consider themselves lonely.

The problem is being made worse by cuts to services for older people, said charity Age UK.

The connection between poor health, loneliness and social isolation has been made before.

However, researchers sought this time to discover what is having the greatest impact: the emotional aspect of feeling lonely or the reality of having scant social interaction.

They found that whether or not participants feel lonely does not alter the impact of social isolation on health.

The report concludes that both social isolation and feeling lonely are associated with higher mortality rates, but after adjusting for factors such as underlying health conditions, only social isolation remained important.

That danger does not alter when researchers calculate whether or not someone feels lonely in their isolation.

Human contact is crucial

The typical model of a person thought to be socially isolated is one with little or no contact with friends or family, who is older and/or unmarried and has a wider range of health conditions, including depression and long-standing mobility-limiting illnesses, such as lung disease and arthritis. They are also more likely to be female.

Study leader Prof Andrew Steptoe, director of the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care at University College London, emphasised the importance of human contact.

He said such social links can provide emotion support and warmth.

Prof Steptoe added that these are important, but they also provide things such as advice, making sure people take their medication and giving encouragement in helping them to do things.

Cuts are making older people more isolated

Michelle Mitchell, Age UK Charity Director-General, commented: 'This study shows more clearly than before that being lonely and isolated is not only miserable, it is a real health risk, increasing the risk of early death. Disability, poor health, poverty and no access to transport all contribute to older people feeling cut off from their family, friends and local community meaning many older people have little or no social interaction.

'We all need to do more to bring older people into the heart of our communities, but at Age UK we are extremely worried that local authority budget cuts are exacerbating the problem of isolation for many older people. Across the country day care centres, often the only regular social life that many older people enjoy, are closing, social care support which can enable older people to leave the house is being cut down to the bare minimum, and too many older people are hidden behind closed doors struggling to cope.

'At Age UK we provide support to older people to stay active and well, ranging from lunch clubs to exercise classes and would encourage everyone to help by staying in touch with older neighbours, family and friends.'

The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Copyright Press Association 2013

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Last updated: Dec 05 2018

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