Is loneliness really a killer?

The evidence is unclear, but what's certain is that it's bad for quality of life

The evidence is unequivocal, says a US professor of psychology, that loneliness and social isolation predict an increased risk of premature mortality.

Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues note that “advancing social connection” should be a public health priority given the links of loneliness to cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and insomnia.

At the annual American Psychological Association meeting earlier in 2017, Dr Holt-Lunstad presented the results of two meta-analyses of loneliness and premature death.

One study of more than 300,000 people concluded that greater social connection halves the risk of early mortality.

The other meta-analysis, which included 3.4 million, people found that loneliness, social isolation and living alone all had a significant and equal effect on the risk of dying prematurely that was at least as great as the effect of other well-accepted risk factors, such as obesity or smoking.

But not everyone is convinced.

British researcher Dr Christina Victor says much of the research into the health effects of loneliness has been imprecise because it has failed to control for all potential confounders.

As well, she says a lot of these studies are cross-sectional.

“You don’t know which way the relationship is going.”

But she says the association between loneliness and physical ailments, and the fact that loneliness is distressing, are reason enough to intervene.

“You can be absolutely certain that loneliness messes up your quality of life,” Dr Victor says.

The problem is that there is a dearth of evidence to support what intuitively seems like good advice for lonely individuals — take a class, get a dog or do volunteer work, she and other researchers in the field say.

One thing on which all experts appear to agree when dealing with lonely patients: what works for one person may not work for another.