Loneliness Kills — It's as Bad as 15 Cigarettes a Day

Sittin' on the dock of the bay ... alone. (Photo: Roman Iakoubtchik/flickr)

We think of loneliness as being unfortunate, but in fact it is a killer. Writing in Hazlitt, Stephen Thomas reminds us of the heat wave of 1995 when the temperature in Chicago hit 106 degrees Fahrenheit. He notes that after the power went out, the temperature inside some apartments hit 120 degrees; 739 people died from the heat.

In its aftermath, an inquiry found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of those who died were poor, old, and lived alone. More surprising was the gender imbalance: significantly more men died than women. This was especially strange considering that in Chicago in July of 1995, there were more old women who lived alone than old men.

The author of this article is worried: “Is this my future?” He has an active social life, and is well integrated into his community. He’s 34.

He is not alone, worrying about this. But most of the people worrying are a bit older: Baby boomers worried about the future. The McMaster Optimal Aging Portal says it’s a thing right now:

If you feel lonely, you are not alone. Media outlets from around the world continue to report on the 'loneliness epidemic' as a major risk to optimal health. Mounting research evidence confirms that social connections are a fundamental human need - crucial to both wellbeing and survival. Loneliness and social isolation are linked to depression, cognitive decline, decreased mobility and early death. Many people feel lonely and lose social connections as they age.

I worry a lot about this personally; I don’t have very many friends outside my circle of couples that my wife Kelly and I see. But there is also a huge cohort of baby boomers who don’t have spouses and children, none of the classic support network. They are being called “elder orphans” and apparently are twice as likely to die early if they don’t have social connections. One of the big factors is depression; according to Bert Rahl of the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging, quoted in U.S. News:

One of the things that keeps people from being depressed is to be connected. The more social activities you have, the more friends, the more things you can do to keep your body and mind active – that's the best protection you have against mental illness.

One thing we have been banging on about at MNN is how important where you live is, if you want to maintain connections and a social life. (See It won't be pretty when boomers lose their cars.) Carol Marak of SeniorCare.com is planning for this, according to US News:

Marak is on a mission: "to create my life where I'm not transportation-dependent," she says. She's looking to move to a more walkable city, perhaps a college town where she's surrounded by young people and can stay engaged with activities like mentoring. She also hopes her future community is filled with other like-minded older adults who can look out for one another. "I want to ... set up my life where I'm not living alone and isolated," she says.

This is something everyone should be worried about these days, not just the aging boomers. It's particularly important for those of us who work from home on internet-based jobs and have fewer and fewer relationships with real live people. Personally, some my best friends exist on Skype and Twitter, which is pretty sad to say. 34-year-old Steven Thomas, sitting at home in front of his computer, worries about the long-term effects of loneliness:

And as if feeling lonely wasn’t bad enough, it also turns out that loneliness and isolation are shockingly bad for your health and wellbeing. The quality of your friendships is the largest predictor of your happiness. Social isolation weakens your immune system, raises your blood pressure, messes with your sleep, and can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. According to the authors of a widely cited meta-analysis, loneliness on its own can increase your chances of an early death by 30 percent and “heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.” And in practical terms, being in contact with nobody in an emergency, like the men in the Chicago heat wave, can kill you in an instant.

Most of the articles going around right now talk about the "elder orphans," people aging alone, but when it comes to loneliness, being married with kids doesn’t always make a difference in the longer run. Thomas points to a British study, which found that married men were significantly more likely to say that they had “no friends to turn to in a serious situation." I am a married man who fits that description totally; while most of our friends are architects who I introduced to my wife Kelly, I have never once hung out with the guys on my own.

Fixing this kind of problem can’t wait; as we noted in the recent post about hearing, the effects start early and you have to prepare. You have to reach out now and build relationships because you will really need them later. This past weekend I proposed a new urban planning and design book club to a lunch guest; I hope to start it this fall. He invited me to join his monthly scotch-tasting club; I definitely am looking forward to that.

seniors dancing
Get up and boogie!. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Then just after the weekend, I was a guest at the daycare where my mom went twice a week until she died this spring. In lieu of flowers we asked people to donate, and my sister and I matched what was raised. They are using the money to do weekly concerts and we came to the inaugural event. As soon as the music started, you could see the excitement come into the eyes of these men and women suffering from dementia, but wow, what muscle memory. These guys had moves better than I have ever had; they could really dance. And seriously, they seemed so happy. Getting down with friends works at any age.

Toward the end of his life, the economist John Maynard Keynes was asked if he had any regrets. He responded: “My only regret in life is that I did not drink more champagne.” He had a point; just don’t do it alone.