FYI Daily

Can Loneliness, Living Alone Kill You?

Last updated:

June 18, 2012

Worried about a loved one who lives alone? New research backs up that gut feeling. Living alone is associated with an increased risk of both functional decline and premature death, according to a pair of new studies. Interestingly, the same has been found true for pervasive loneliness, even when the person lives with someone else.

Living alone "could be a little red flag that [a] patient may be at a higher risk of bad outcomes," Deepak L. Bhatt, a cardiologist at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, told CNN.

And those under age 80 seem to be at greater risk than those 80 or older. One of the studies just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, followed nearly 45,000 people ages 45 and up who had heart disease or a high risk of developing the condition. Those who lived alone were more likely to die from heart attacks, strokes, or other heart complications than people living with family or friends or in another communal arrangement. The risk was highest among people ages 45 to 65 and nonexistent in people age 80 and older.

Living alone may be a sign of social or psychological problems, such as relationship trouble, a weak support system, job stress, or depression-- all factors linked to heart disease. (Most people in this demographic are living with spouses, so living alone is relatively unusual, which may explain why they had a higher risk of death even though a lower percentage of individuals were in this situation.) Also, those living alone tend to be less vigilant about self care, such as skipping medications or ignoring symptoms, researchers say.

The second study, focusing on people ages 60 and older, indicates that the feelings of loneliness and isolation, by themselves, can be a form of stress contributing to inflammation] . Those who reported, during the six-year study, that they felt lonely, isolated, or left out were 45 percent more likely to die and 59 percent more likely to have difficulty with everyday tasks such as dressing and bathing (an important marker for older adults living alone, known as functionality).

"Feelings of being lonely could cause an inflammatory state," says lead author Carla M. Perissinotto, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

CNN reports that the link between loneliness and poor health held even after the researchers took into account living situation, depression, and other factors, suggesting that feelings of loneliness or isolation might independently damage health in some way.

Image by Flickr user JD the Photog, used under a Creative Commons license.