Friends are a matter of life and death

Elderly men sharing a joke

We are such a cynical lot. When a Downing Street advisor points out that loneliness is probably more dangerous to our health in retirement than smoking, there are plenty who immediately assume that the advice is part of some dastardly statist plot to get pensioners out of their one-bed flats to sweat their final years away on a factory production line - see below for one example.

But might it be true? And if it is, should we take isolation as seriously as we do obesity or smoking in our health strategies?

The findings which inspired David Cameron's nudge unit come from a meta-analysis (analysing lots of different pieces of existing research) of 148 studies into the effects of social isolation on mortality conducted by academics at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina in the US.

The researchers were able to look at the lives of almost 309,000 people for an average of 7.5 years. (That is a seriously big sample.)

What emerged was that those with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those who lived more solitary lives. (And that is a seriously powerful finding.)

The effect was consistent across a number of factors:

  • age
  • sex
  • health status
  • follow-up period
  • cause of death

This isn't research showing that pensioners are better off having friends - it suggests that we are all likely to enjoy health benefits if we have busy social lives.

The 'dastardly statist plot' view

Political blogger Anna Raccoon writes: "It's official. There is a peril more likely to carry you off to your maker in the wee small hours of the morn than smoking. It must be so, the government says it is so.

No, it's not eating more than three pomegranates a week, nor taking a bath with less than five people. Give up?

It's enjoying a peaceful retirement. Quit yer laughing, they're deadly (sic) serious. They are forming government policy round this notion as we speak."

No-one is suggesting it is wrong to live alone or enjoy one's own company. But human beings are social creatures and starved of contact we can, quite literally, die.

The conclusion to the US research makes the point that "many decades ago high mortality rates were observed among infants in custodial care (ie, orphanages), even when controlling for pre-existing health conditions and medical treatment".

It was then noticed that lack of human contact predicted mortality. "The medical profession was stunned to learn that infants would die without social interaction. This single finding, so simplistic in hindsight, was responsible for changes in practice and policy that markedly decreased mortality rates in custodial care settings."

Loneliness is bad for our health. Seriously bad. Doctors have known this for decades.

Two women at the swimming pool Friendship can make the heart grow stronger

An article in Science magazine in 1988 noted that "social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health - rivalling the effect of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity".

The more recent research concludes that, if the impact of isolation is potentially so great on our health, we should do more to prevent it. "Medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections; hospitals and clinics could involve patient support networks in implementing and monitoring treatment regimens and compliance, etc."

This table show the relationship between different aspects of lifestyle and mortality, comparing the odds of decreased mortality:

Comparison of odds of decreased mortality across several conditions associated with mortality

Company is much more important in reducing our risk of dying than losing weight, taking exercise or giving up booze or fags.

And do you know what? I would much rather Whitehall advisors were telling us about this stuff than trying to spin some new government wheeze.

I am not going to take up smoking or down a bottle of whisky a day because of the research. They are really bad for you too. But I might work a bit harder to be a good friend.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    You are all incapable of spending five miuntes in your own company or so it seems. We're all in this together and other sheet makes me and the sane men left laugh given where we're headed. What you gonna say when there are eignt or nine million unemployed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    We'd all benefit from less *Downing Street advisors*. If the elected folks in office in that esteemed street aren't capable of doing their jobs with rational thought & a little hard work, they should hand over the reigns to some of the experienced & talented people currently thrown on the employment scrapheap. Seems the only friends government officials have are bought & paid for with our money

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    If it was worth including the table in the article, surely it's worth adding some explanation of what on earth it means?

    It actually looks as though it might be interesting, but we'll probably never get to find out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Dear Empiredown (#1), we'd make really good friends..

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    And now I've made my point in #25, please go away and leave me alone ... that's called ironic self-deprecation, by the way ... maybe a new concept to some of you :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Why the obsession with specific effects on health? Isn't it enough to say that living in isolation makes most people dreadfully unhappy? Surely this is a more important (and obvious) fact. It is sad that governments only feel the need to intervene when such measurable qualities as economic output and mortality are affected, and yet day to day human misery sits below their radar

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I have two friends who constantly whinge because they think I spend too much time at home and haven't made many other friends at work. Never mind the fact that I have to commute each day so a social life would be difficult, and never mind the fact that I'm there to support myself financially and not to insinuate myself on others.

    It's pretty clear that they just want to make friends through me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    it would be jolly useful if the scale to the table was explained. I might be able to guess - but what does it really mean. Graphs are meaningless without this explanation. Relationship to lifestyle and mortality does not tell you! Also I had to use a lot of zoom to read it. It is after all the most important part of the article!

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I work in a day centre and the people attending love it, it is often the only company they get,week in, week out, as their children live too far away or can't be bothered. One told me we'd be the only people to know she'd died. The suicide rate for over 75s is high, company may not be for everyone but should be there for those who want it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I am in my 50's. I have a wonderful wife and 3 great children plus grandchildren. But I have no real friends. I have people whom I call friends. When we meet up we have a wonderful time ; but no one I would confide in or phone if I was in trouble. I am very private and I have always been like this even as a child. Never seen an issue with it. Report is nonsense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Hurrah for Mr Wonderful. Booo to empiredown. AJJeffries has a valid point, and good luck to Marie's dad!

    For myself, some years retired, mostly content, not a social animal but still possessed of all my faculties, I'd quite like a (paid) job and another good friend or two. But I'm not about to trawl mocking agencies for work, nor join 'oldies' clubs and the like for company. Any suggestions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    I'm guessing those who need company to stay alive are weak and probably won't pass the entrance exam once they move forwards to the other side?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Lots of comments here from people saying "I'm not a social animal, leave me alone ..." OK you have that right, especially not to be pestered by well-meaning "we know what's good for you" self-styled researchers, but: if you're not social, why are you posting on this blog ? You either feel the need to reply, or want a reply; either way, you're social. So please be consistent !!

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    also, the results of this study aren't trying to force you to be a social creature, just suggesting that it might be beneficial for your health.

    By all means though please ignore their advice, and make your way into an early, and lonely grave.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @empiredown, everyone gets stressed, just be happy at least you got a wife, family and a job! you should embrace that and life. Some of us got literally nothing, and im sure you got friends and sometime to socialise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    They say "When the going gets tough, you find out who your friends are"; but when the going gets REALLY tough - that's when you find out you haven't got any.

    However deep they might seem, on the bottom line ALL friendships are superficial... it's every (wo)man for themselves and we all die alone.

    Scared, or reassured?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Mark Easton is spot-on. We are a cynical lot, as he confirms in his penultimate paragraph.
    The US academics aren't telling us how to live our lives. They're providing us with the evidence that will enable us to make up our own minds. Take it or leave it, our choice. And, fellow-correspondents, my choice is as of little interest to you as yours is to me. So I'm not going to tell you what it is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Hmm This is kinds contradictory. Non of these old people should be smokers so how can it rival smoking being alone?

    According to government advice anyone who smokes or breathes passive smoke even a whiff is supposed to drop dead on the spot!

    Im amazed the human race didnt die out when we all smoked and had coal fires since plant smoke basically is so lethal to us all, not cars ect..

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    No Man Is An Island - John Donne 1624.

    There is a reason why history shows man as a social creature, constantly living as a part of a larger social group. I know i'm only one person, but the best part of my life is the company and support of my friends.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The table you display in this article is meaningless without some explanation of what those numbers mean (probably relative risk of death). Please consider amending this, thanks.

    From my point of view it is up to the patient to decide how they wish to use the information that loneliness is bad for your health. It is not really the role of the medical profession to mandate any 'treatment'.


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