What Are Friends For? Your Good Health, Maybe

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Researchers uncover a link between social isolation and worsened health.

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Whether it's the solitude you get after a long and busy day or the independence -- you can walk around in your underwear all the time! -- living alone has its perks. Some people are perfectly happy to be alone all the time. But being isolated and feeling lonely may put you at higher risk for functional decline and even death, new research finds.

Silly as it sounds, living by yourself carries a small if obvious danger. When family members and roommates are around, they can intervene in a medical emergency. Being on your own means that, well, you're on your own.

Putting that logic to the test, scientists looked at patients with a cardiovascular condition called atherothrombosis. Patients who lived alone were slightly more likely to die within the four years after their recruitment than patients who lived with others, by a margin of three percentage points. Nearly nine percent of those who lived alone died from cardiovascular problems specifically, compared to about seven percent of those who didn't live by themselves.

The research, which was published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine, suggest that patients with chronic illnesses like heart disease benefit from having a strong social support system around them.

The same appears to be true for older people, though perhaps for slightly different reasons. In a separate paper published alongside the first, scientists examined 1,604 adults over the age of 60. The study subjects were grouped into two camps -- lonely and not lonely -- based on their answers to a three-point questionnaire asking if they felt isolated, left out, or lacked companionship. Over at The Incidental Economist, Aaron Carroll looks dishearteningly at the results:

While I have no benchmark for the rest of the country, it pained me that more than 40% of the elderly reported feeling some measure of loneliness. Even if it turned out this was no worse, or even better, than younger Americans, that would still be disappointing. I wasn't surprised to see that older people were lonelier, but I was surprised to see that lonely subjects were more likely to be female. I was also surprised to see that so many of the people who were lonely did not live alone.

Forty percent, if we're putting it into context, does appear to be somewhat higher than the national average. In 2006, Duke University researchers looked at data from the General Social Survey, a regular sampling of Americans' attitudes. A quarter of Americans reported feeling as though they had no one they could confide in, which makes the figure for the elderly about as disappointing as Carroll says.

The latest scientific findings also go into some of the consequences of senior loneliness, which include a decline in the ability to walk, bathe, climb stairs, and yes, also an increase in the risk for death. Over a six-year follow-up period, the authors say, those who said they were lonely were associated with a higher risk of death (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent for those who were not lonely). A big share of those who felt lonely lived by themselves, though many other lonely seniors also lived with others.

Whether loneliness and living alone drives people to an early grave is a something the paper takes pains to dismiss. It's also not clear how that process would work, were the two truly linked. But this research does underline the benefits of maintaining strong connections with the people around you.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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