Last Updated on April 25, 2020
Research conducted shortly before the Coronavirus outbreak shows that social isolation dramatically increases the risk of death from any cause, particularly among black people.
The American Journal of Epidemiology ran a study in its January 2019 edition entitled, “Social Isolation and Mortality in US Black and White Men and Women.”
The study found (emphasis added):
“Similarly to previous studies (5, 6), current findings indicate that a composite measure of social isolation is a robust predictor of mortality risk among men, women, blacks, and whites. Compared with the least isolated, the most socially isolated black men and women had a more than 2-fold higher risk of death from any cause, and white men and women had 60% and 84% greater risks of death, respectively. Two other studies of social isolation and mortality reported findings for both blacks and whites.”
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In May 2019, the American Psychological Association published an article entitled, “The risks of social isolation.” Author Amy Novotney noted the American Journal of Epidemiology study in her article, writing:
“According to a 2018 national survey by Cigna, loneliness levels have reached an all-time high, with nearly half of 20,000 U.S. adults reporting they sometimes or always feel alone. Forty percent of survey participants also reported they sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful and that they feel isolated.
Such numbers are alarming because of the health and mental health risks associated with loneliness. According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. She’s also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2015).
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” HoltLunstad says…
As demonstrated by a review of the effects of perceived social isolation across the life span, co-authored by Hawkley, loneliness can wreak havoc on an individual’s physical, mental and cognitive health (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Vol. 370, No. 1669, 2015). Hawkley points to evidence linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life. In addition, a 2019 study led by Kassandra Alcaraz, PhD, MPH, a public health researcher with the American Cancer Society, analyzed data from more than 580,000 adults and found that social isolation increases the risk of premature death from every cause for every race (American Journal of Epidemiology, Vol. 188, No. 1, 2019). According to Alcaraz, among black participants, social isolation doubled the risk of early death, while it increased the risk among white participants by 60 to 84 percent.
“Our research really shows that the magnitude of risk presented by social isolation is very similar in magnitude to that of obesity, smoking, lack of access to care and physical inactivity,” she says. In the study, investigators weighted several standard measures of social isolation, including marital status, frequency of religious service attendance, club meetings/group activities and number of close friends or relatives. They found that overall, race seemed to be a stronger predictor of social isolation than sex; white men and women were more likely to be in the least isolated category than were black men and women.
The American Cancer Society study is the largest to date on all races and genders, but previous research has provided glimpses into the harmful effects of social isolation and loneliness. A 2016 study led by Newcastle University epidemiologist Nicole Valtorta, PhD, for example, linked loneliness to a 30 percent increase in risk of stroke or the development of coronary heart disease (Heart, Vol. 102, No. 13). Valtorta notes that a lonely individual’s higher risk of ill health likely stems from several combined factors: behavioral, biological and psychological.”
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