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10 ways loneliness can affect your health — physically and mentally

10 ways loneliness can affect your health — physically and mentally

Loneliness can have adverse health effects.

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Loneliness can have adverse health effects.
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Shutterstock

There are plenty of obvious ways in which your lifestyle affects your physical and mental health.

For instance, there are “healthy” eating habits that actually aren’t so healthy, and there’s the age-old question of whether or not you’re getting enough sleep.

But there’s a less obvious aspect of your lifestyle that might be impacting your health: loneliness.

INSIDER spoke to two experts about loneliness: Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, and Dr. Nancy Donovan, a psychiatrist who specializes in geriatrics and neurology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Both have studied the effects of loneliness extensively and have conducted studies on the subject.

Before delving into the adverse health effects that can be brought on by loneliness, it’s critical to understand the definition of that term. Both Donovan and Holt-Lunstad said there are two different types of loneliness: subjective and objective. Objective loneliness refers to the physical state of being alone or socially isolated. Subjective loneliness, on the other hand, refers to the feeling of being alone – even if you’re not actually alone. It’s an emotional rather than physical state.

“It’s that subjective, distressing feeling of that discrepancy between one’s desired and actual level of social connection,” Holt-Lunstad said.

The studies mentioned below show that there are risks associated with both kinds of loneliness.


Loneliness can increase your risk of an early death.

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Isabel Morel, the widow of Orlando Letelier, puts flowers on a grave in Chile.
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Thomson Reuters

Holt-Lunstad published two major studies that establish the overall effect of loneliness as a risk factor for premature mortality (death that occurs before the average age of death in a certain population).

Holt-Lunstad’s first study examined the extent to which social relationships and other social indicators, such as size of social network and perceived social support, influence one’s risk for mortality. The analysis – which involved over 300,000 participants – found that scoring low on those indicators of social connection carried a similar risk to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day, Holt-Lunstad told INSIDER. Participants with stronger relationships were found to have a 50% increased likelihood of survival.

The second study involved 3.4 million participants and focused on subjective loneliness and actual, physical social isolation, and found that both can lead to a 30% increased risk of premature death. Holt-Lunstad said this risk exceeds that of obesity, physical inactivity, and air pollution.


Loneliness can lead to depression.

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The association between depression and loneliness doesn’t affect one age group more than another.
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Shutterstock

According to Donovan, loneliness can be a risk factor for developing depression. Evidence of this can be found in a 2006 study that looked at results from two population-based studies of middle-aged to older adults. Both studies found that higher levels of loneliness were associated with more depressive symptoms, and that this association stayed stable throughout one’s lifetime.


Loneliness can trigger inflammation in the body.

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Genes are expressed differently in people who feel lonely.
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Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Steve Cole, a professor of medicine, psychiatry, and biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, conducted a study in 2007 that examined how genes are expressed differently in people who feel lonely. More specifically, the study found that a group of genes involved in inflammation – the body’s way of defending itself – are more active in those who feel lonely.

This genetic reaction is one that dates back generations. Our bodies still see loneliness and isolation as the threat it was centuries ago, when being alone could mean being attacked by an animal or another group of people. Inflammation is meant to be a defense mechanism to protect us from infection and injury, but too much of it can lead to serious illness like cancer.


Loneliness might make it harder to interact with others.

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Social situations might be tough.
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eakkarat rangram/Shutterstock

Holt-Lunstad told INSIDER that those who report greater loneliness also perceive social situations as more threatening. Although this may seem odd – you would assume that those who are lonely would take advantage of opportunities to form connections – it’s a phenomenon that has roots in evolution.

John Cacioppo, a professor and the founder and director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, explained to CityLab that loneliness ups the stakes of social interaction because it motivates you to “repair or replace connections that you feel are threatened or lost,” which in turn makes lonely people a lot more sensitive to social information – good and bad.

Further, he explains that thanks to an evolutionary bias, humans are often scared of connecting with someone who could turn out to be an enemy. Therefore, Cacioppo says a neural mechanism causes those who are lonely to approach social situations with a heavy dose of doubt.


Loneliness increases your risk for heart disease.

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Loneliness has been associated with an increased risk for stroke and coronary heart disease.
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ArisSu/iStock

Both Donovan and Holt-Lunstad highlighted that loneliness has been linked to serious cardiovascular issues. A 2016 study involving 181,000 adults found that loneliness and social isolation were associated with a 32% increase in risk of stroke and a 29% increase in risk for coronary heart disease.


It makes coping with stress more difficult.

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Social support can actually optimize chemical processes in the body and brain.
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Vera Agency/iStock

Taking on the stress of everyday life alone might be more damaging to your health than taking it on with the help of others. A 2007 study found that social support may optimize a neurochemical response that provides resilience to stress. Findings from the study also showed that social support may moderate environmental and genetic vulnerabilities to stress.

Further, according to Psychology Today, “lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.”


Loneliness can mess with your eating habits.

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Loneliness can be a factor in weight gain or weight loss.
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Daniela Snow/Flickr

A 2012 study focusing on the association between eating disorders and loneliness found that many characteristics of loneliness relate to multiple different kinds of eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder. Therefore, loneliness can be a factor in either weight gain or weight loss.

According to the study, for those who gain weight, it’s often because they use food as a way to numb the feelings of loneliness they’re experiencing.


It might be a sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

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Loneliness can be an early indicator of cognitive decline.
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REUTERS/Mike Blake

A study Donovan conducted that looked at 79 community-dwelling older adults found that those who had higher levels of a protein called amyloid also reported a lack of companionship, as well as more frequent feelings of isolation.

Many scientists believe that amyloid accumulation in the brain is the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s. This theory hypothesizes that the amyloid compound messes with communication between brain cells and eventually kills those cells, therefore leading to the cognitive decline characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.


Loneliness might make you more susceptible to cold and flu symptoms.

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Loneliness doesn’t make you more likely to get a cold, but it makes you get symptoms.
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Shutterstock

A 2017 study found that those who feel lonely are more prone to feeling cold symptoms. The study exposed 159 people to the common cold virus and then quarantined them in a hotel room for five days.

Not everyone got sick, but among the ones who did, those who reported feeling lonely were close to 39% more likely to report more severe symptoms.

Separately, a 2007 study conducted by both Cacioppo and Cole found that lonely peoples’ immune system focuses on fighting bacteria rather than viruses, meaning that lonely people are more susceptible to viral infections.


It might lead to more unhealthy behaviors.

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Friends or spouses can help you make healthier decisions.
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Shutterstock

Holt-Lunstad told INSIDER that having positive relationships in your life can motivate you to engage in healthier behaviors, like eating better, getting enough sleep, exercising, and going to the doctor when needed.

A 2010 study that looked at social ties and their link to health behavior found that relationships can influence behavior in both positive and negative ways. The study points out that marriage, for example, is associated with a reduced likelihood to engage in risky behaviors, like smoking, drug use, and excessive drinking. Those who are married have also been found to have lower mortality rates, something the study says is often attributed to healthier habits.

Those who have a roommate, partner, or children were less likely to engage in substance abuse, according to the study, meaning that those who don’t have these relationships in their life may be more likely to turn to this kind of behavior.

Visit INSIDER’s homepage for more.

9 subtle signs that you’re lonely — even if it doesn’t feel like it

9 subtle signs that you’re lonely — even if it doesn’t feel like it

Turning to technology could be a sign of loneliness.

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Turning to technology could be a sign of loneliness.
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Warner Bros. Pictures

Loneliness is proven to have a detrimental effect on your body and wellbeing. It can lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, reduced immunity, and depression – loneliness was even declared a public health issue.

In order to keep yourself as healthy as possible, maintaining relationships with your family and friends is key – there’s a reason that “Social” is a need in “The Sims.”

However, even if you don’t feel like you’re lonely, keep an eye out for these seemingly benign signs of loneliness: your body could be trying to tell you something.


You constantly feel tired.

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It might be why you’re yawning all the time.
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Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

A study published in 2011 linked loneliness to sleep fragmentation, which is defined as “arousals and awakenings that disrupt the normal stages and architecture of sleep.” In other words, it’s when you can’t sleep through the night, and are continuously waking up.

If you’re thinking, “Well, I always sleep through the night, so that can’t be why I’m so tired,” you might want to pay closer attention. The amount of time that you’re awake can be so small that you don’t even realize or remember it the next morning – but it’s preventing you from completing a full sleep cycle.

The study concluded that loneliness is a significant predictor of sleep fragmentation, and that “lonely individuals do not sleep as well as individuals who feel more connected to others.”


You care a lot about material possessions.

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Materialism and loneliness are linked.
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Getty Images

Materialism and loneliness are also believed to be linked: One study of 2,500 people over six years found that loneliness causes people to frequently go out and buy material things (but also points out that it does not go the other way – materialism does not cause loneliness).

So, if you suddenly find yourself fixating on material possessions and shopping more than normal (filling a void, if you will), you could be going through a rough patch.


You find yourself taking really long and hot showers.

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They’re also not great for your skin.
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Anna Omelchenko/shutterstock

In a study published in the scientific journal “Emotion,” researchers found a link between physical and social “warmth.” Essentially, if a person feels socially cold (aka lonely), they’re more likely to try to substitute emotional warmth with physical warmth by taking hot showers and baths.


You can’t stop binge-watching shows.

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You might want to stop clicking “Next Episode.”
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FOX

A tendency to binge-watch can indicate a few things: loneliness, depression, and a lack of control. A study done at the University of Texas at Austin found that loneliness and binge-watching TV are linked in some way.

They found that “the more lonely and depressed the study participants were, the more likely they were to binge-watch TV, using this activity to move away from negative feelings.”


You are consistently making mountains out of molehills.

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Stress can be a sign of loneliness.
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HBO/”Entourage”

If you feel like you’ve been more stressed than normal recently, you could just be lonely. According to Psychology Today, “lonely individuals report higher levels of perceived stress even when exposed to the same stressors as non-lonely people, and even when they are relaxing.”

So if your past couple of months haven’t been inherently more stressful than normal, but you feel like you’ve been extra stressed about little things, it could be loneliness raising your levels of stress hormones and blood pressure.


You’re spending a lot of time on social media.

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Digital interaction is not the same as human interaction.
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Garry Knight / Flickr

A study found that heavy use of social media was associated with feelings of social isolation: those who spend more than two hours a day on social media were twice as likely to feel lonely than those who spent 30 minutes or less on social media platforms.

However, the causation is unclear: does loneliness cause an increase in social media use or does social media use increase feelings of loneliness? Either way, “What we know at this point is that we have evidence that replacing your real-world relationships with social media use is detrimental to your well-being,” Holly Shakya, an assistant professor in the division of global public health at the University of California, San Diego, told NPR.


You hang out with other lonely people.

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Your friends might be lonely too.
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Pexels

A 2010 study found that loneliness “spreads through a contagious process.” So even if you yourself don’t feel lonely, counter intuitively your social network could be changing that. In other words, if you have friends that feel lonely, you’re more likely to experience feelings of loneliness too.

According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you’re 52% more likely to feel lonely if someone you’re directly connected to is lonely.


You’ve gained weight.

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Weight gain can stem from isolation.
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Kzenon/Shutterstock

Since weight gain is a common side effect of depression, it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise that weight gain could also signify loneliness.

Mental health counselor Ashley Turner told the UnLonely Project that “loneliness is one of the biggest drives toward overeating. We naturally turn to food to nurture and nourish ourselves. It is the most obvious way to fill ourselves up. However, when we are lonely, what we are actually craving is a little personal interaction, intimacy, love or friendship, someone to share our lives with.”


It feels like you constantly have a cold.

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Loneliness could directly affect your health.
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Shutterstock

Loneliness can lead to a weakened immune system, leaving you susceptible to colds and other viruses. It can become a vicious cycle, as staying at home with a cold will isolate you from others, in turn increasing loneliness.

A study from UCLA found that the immune system of lonely people focuses on bacteria rather than viruses, meaning that lonely people are more susceptible to viral infections.

Loneliness can also lead to an increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure, inflammation, and even issues with learning and memory, and is said to be a bigger health risk than obesity or smoking.

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This female CEO is trying to defeat loneliness — and robots are part of her plan

This female CEO is trying to defeat loneliness — and robots are part of her plan

Older people can more easily connect with their families

Older people struggle with technology for different reasons. They may be unable to use a tablet or a phone – perhaps because it’s too different to what they’re used to, but it also may be because they cannot see the screen properly, or it isn’t responsive to their fingers due to poor circulation.

No Isolation built a computer called KOMP that has just one button. Even people with dementia should be able to recognise a big button easily, Dolva said, so older people can push it on and off and be connected to the rest of the family in an instant.

“All of a sudden we’ve made them online,” she said. “We try and bring them into the same platform as everyone else, without changing the habits of the younger generations.”

The burden of loneliness is incredibly high. Studies have shown how the stress of being lonely has a bad impact on your heart, and it can affect your brain and body in many harmful ways.

Finding the ‘price tag’ of loneliness

This isn’t just bad for the people who are lonely, but for society too. That’s why Dolva says she wants to find the “pricetag of loneliness” to really push them forwards.

That means calculating the cost of what happens if a child gets diagnosed with cancer at eight, then isn’t able to go to school for two or three years.

“What’s the likelihood of dropping out of school, and what’s the likelihood of getting a job if you drop out of school?” Dolva said. “Same with the seniors. If we manage to increase [their] quality of life, and enable them to stay at home for a week, two weeks, maybe a couple of months longer, what does that mean for the government in numbers?

“I want those numbers because that’s the only way we can keep really pushing the market in front of us.”

The causes of loneliness are hard to measure, because there are so many different factors for different age groups. Older people are isolated from their family and have lost many of their friends. Younger people, like millennials, may be more affected by looking on social media.

Whatever it is, Dolva said the research shows a connection between loneliness and our expectations compared to reality.

“For example, you would feel more lonely if you were alone on a Saturday than on a Tuesday night,” she said. “Because your expectation level is much higher on a Saturday. And this might be something that social media has increased… We continuously see other people doing a lot of things, so we feel like everyone is doing something all the time, and we should too.”

Kids playing football, while their friend watches with an AV1.

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Kids playing football, while their friend watches with an AV1.
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No Isolation

But blaming technology for our problems isn’t the answer, she said. Instead, it’s about looking at where it falls short and demanding for it to be better.

“You could start to question whether or not social media is social at all,” Dolva said. “If you drill down and see what social media was meant to do, and what is at the core business there, it has nothing to do with long conversations or close relations… social networks have not been made to increase the value of the friends that you have.”

Ultimately it doesn’t matter if you have two, 20, or 100 friends. Your social satisfaction depends on how close you are to the ones you have, and to what extent you meet your expectation levels. If you’re happy with the amount of time you spend with your two close friends, then you won’t feel lonely.

“It’s the second you start thinking I want more, I wish I could do this tonight, but I don’t have anyone to talk to about that – that’s when we start experiencing that we’re lonely,” Dolva said.

A lot more people need help

Four months after starting up, No Isolation rolled out 20 prototypes of the AV1 robot, and immediately the team were receiving emails from moms and dads. The same happened with the KOMP screen for older people. People were getting in touch saying how wonderful it was that they could now be connected to their grandparents in such an easy way.

“We’ve been saying amongst ourselves as long as we help one more kid we will succeed,” said Dolva. “If we can do that by bringing one more unit out then that’s a success.”

Somewhere between 20 and 40% of the population experience loneliness, so there’s more than enough people to take them.

“I think we have our hands full if we want to help them all,” Dolva said. “But that would be the end goal… That people aren’t suffering from loneliness anymore.”

Loneliness really is bad for your heart, according to a new study

Loneliness really is bad for your heart, according to a new study

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plantic/Shutterstock
  • A new study has found a link between loneliness and increased risk of death from heart problems.
  • Researchers found people with heart diseases were more likely to die if they had poor social connections.
  • Loneliness can have a detrimental impact on both our minds and bodies.
  • And going through tough moments in life, including disease, can be even harder without a support network.

Our hearts can sometimes respond dramatically to our emotional state. For example, Broken Heart Syndrome is when heartbreak triggers sudden, intense chest pain, which can lead to severe heart muscle failure – despite the heart being otherwise healthy.

According to a new study, presented last weekend at EuroHeartCare 2018, the European Society of Cardiology’s annual nursing congress, loneliness can be a strong predictor of dying too soon.

The research, led by Anne Vinggaard Christensen, a PhD student at The Heart Centre, Copenhagen University Hospital in Denmark, investigated whether loneliness was associated with worse health in 13,463 people with various heart problems. Researchers used data from questionnaires the patients had filled out about their physical and mental health, lifestyle, smoking habits, and friendships.

Specifically, friendship questions were based around living alone, whether they felt lonely, and whether they felt they had someone to talk to. It was important to collect a wide range of information, because being lonely and being alone are not the same thing.

“Loneliness is more common today than ever before, and more people live alone,” said Vinggaard Christensen. “Loneliness is a strong predictor of premature death, worse mental health, and lower quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease, and a much stronger predictor than living alone, in both men and women.”

This was true regardless of the type of heart disease, and even when the results were adjusted to take into account the patient’s age, level of education, other health problems and diseases, BMI, smoking, and alcohol intake. Overall, loneliness was associated with a doubled risk of death for women, and nearly double for men.

Both men and women who felt lonely were three times more likely to report being anxious or depressed, and their quality of life was significantly lower. Vinggaard Christensen said it could be because people with poor social support could look after themselves less, in terms of taking their medicine and their lifestyle, but the results strongly support the hypothesis that loneliness is to blame.

“We live in a time when loneliness is more present and health providers should take this into account when assessing risk,” she said.

The new study supports previous research that has shown how loneliness can impact our health in a serious way. For example, one study found how scoring low on social support can carry a similar health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Another showed how it can increase inflammation, because our bodies may still perceive being alone as a threat – dating back to our caveman days.

Whatever the physiological reasons, it is clear loneliness is detrimental to our physical and mental health. We are social animals, and if our social lives aren’t fulfilling us to the level we desire, the tough moments in life can feel even harder.

More evidence that feeling lonely is bad for heart health

More evidence that feeling lonely is bad for heart health

NEW US research has found that heart failure patients who feel lonely are more likely to require hospitalisation than patients who feel less socially isolated.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins University, and Olmsted County Public Health Services in the US surveyed 2,003 patients who had been diagnosed with heart failure, a condition which occurs when the heart is too weak to effectively pump blood throughout the body.

The survey asked participants to respond to four statements – “I feel left out,” “I feel that people barely know me,” “I feel isolated from others,” and “I feel that people are around me but not with me” – and indicate how often they felt this way.

Scores could range from 4 to 20, with a higher score indicating greater perceived social isolation.

The results showed that only around 6% of participants reported high perceived social isolation and 19% had moderate perceived social isolation.

However, it was the patients with high perceived social isolation who had the greatest risk of death, 3.5 times higher than those who had low perceived social isolation.

Patients with a high level of social isolation also had a 68% increased risk of hospitalisation and a 57% increased risk of emergency department visits.

Those reporting moderate perceived social isolation on the other hand did not have an increased risk of death, hospitalisations, or emergency department visits compared with patients reporting low perceived social isolation.

The study’s senior author Lila Rutten commented that the study is one of the first to research thoroughly the link between heart failure patients, prognosis and perceptions of social isolation.

However, it is not the first to show a link between loneliness and a higher risk of negative health outcomes.

A large-scale study published earlier this year by the University of Helsinki in Finland found that contrary to popular belief, loneliness does not contribute to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease; however the risk of death after a heart attack or stroke is around 30% higher for those feeling lonely.

Research from the University of Toronto also found that for older adults and seniors, having more or closer relationships with family members can decrease the risk of mortality, although surprisingly having close friendships or a larger group of friends did not have the same effect.

A 2017 meta-analysis by Brigham University looked at 70 studies involving around 3.4 million participants to find that social isolation could be just as important as a risk factor for mortality as obesity, while a 2015 study suggested that loneliness has a negative effect on health due to social isolation causing a weakened immune system, which makes a person who lives alone more vulnerable to illness.

The results of the new research were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. – AFP Relaxnews

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