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Social Isolation May Affect Mortality More Than Simply Feeling Lonely

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

We often talk about social isolation and loneliness as synonymous concepts – they both refer to a state of “aloneness.” But are social isolation and loneliness really the same thing? Not at all, according to a study recently conducted by University College London.

In the study, researchers defined social isolation as a lack of physical and social contact with others. According to this definition, those who are socially isolated do not have friends, family, or neighbors with whom they interact on a regular (or many times, even intermittent) basis. Loneliness, on the other hand, was defined as an emotional state. It’s a melancholy feeling of being alone and disconnected when one does not want to be so.

It might seem like social isolation and loneliness go hand in hand, and they often do. But sometimes a person is one but not the other. I’ll bet you can think of a person who is socially isolated but doesn’t feel one bit lonely. I’ll bet you can also think of someone surrounded by caring people who nevertheless feels utterly alone.

Because social isolation and loneliness are different, the researchers wondered if one impacted mortality more than the other. To find out, they studied 6,500 British people over the age of 52 for approximately 8 years. Measuring social isolation and loneliness as well as mortality rates, here’s what they found:

  • The most socially isolated participants were 26% more likely to die during the study period than participants who were the most socially active. Because other factors such as age and illness can also affect mortality, the researchers controlled for these variables and found the same results.
  • Not surprisingly, loneliness was often linked to social isolation, but not always.
  • Even though the two concepts were sometimes linked, levels of loneliness were not found to be significantly linked to mortality when other factors such as age and illness were considered.

What does this mean? The researchers suggest that social isolation is a more serious risk factor for mortality than loneliness. In other words, a person who does not feel lonely but who has no social contact is at higher risk of death than a person who feels lonely but who receives physical and social contact on a regular basis.

What do you think? Does this make sense to you? I think it speaks to the powerful nature of human contact. Research does show that something as simple as a gentle hug can reduce blood pressure, while a lack of affection can result in increased inflammation. Knowing that our interactions make a difference is encouraging, even when our loved ones appear to continue feeling lonely despite our attempts to nurture. This research suggests that our efforts may be worthwhile, after all.


Szalavitz, M. (2013). Social isolation, not just feeling lonely, may shorten lives. – Health & Family:

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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