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Which Is Worse, Being Lonely or Just Being Alone?

Movie star Greta Garbo was famous for saying, "I want to be let alone," but new research suggests that's a rotten philosophy to follow if you want to live longer.

A British study of 6,500 older adults finds that social isolation, even more than loneliness, may increase an older person's risk of early death. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers at University College London knew from previous studies that both isolation and loneliness raised a person's risk of death. What they wanted to see was whether one condition - or perhaps the two combined - was worse health-wise.

"We were thinking that people who were socially isolated but also felt lonely might be at particularly high risk," lead author Andrew Steptoe, a professor of psychology, told NPR,  but to his surprise, "it was really the isolation which was more important."

The findings were based on data from adults ages 52 and older who had filled out questionnaires in 2003-2004 assessing both their sense of loneliness and how much contact they had with friends and family. The researchers then tracked the respondents' health over the next seven years.

While researchers found that social isolation and loneliness each carried a higher risk of early death, there was an important difference: Having no social contacts increased the risk of dying regardless of a person's health and other factors, while loneliness increased the risk of dying only among those with underlying mental or physical health problems.

As explained: "The researchers suspect that older people who have few social ties may not be getting the care they need. No one is urging them to eat right or take their medicine, and in a crisis no one is there to help."

Some American researchers remain a bit skeptical about the British results, saying feelings of loneliness can be just as harmful to an older person's health. A similar  study last year of older Americans by University of Chicago researchers found that loneliness, regardless of health factors, was linked with increased death over a six-year period.

Either way, the research reflects the fact that both British and U.S. populations have become more solitary, with more than a quarter of households in both countries composed of people living by themselves, reported the Los Angeles Times.

Even sadder, the proportion of Americans who said they had no one to talk to about important matters grew from 10 percent in 1985 to 25 percent in 2004, British researchers said. A 2010 European survey revealed that more than a quarter of Europeans age 50 and older reported that they met friends, colleagues or family less than once a month.

Loneliness and isolation "should get lots of attention because they may be as important, as joint factors, as smoking," Richard Suzman of the National Institute on Aging, told the Times.

University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo had a more immediate solution: "Have lunch with somebody," he told NPR.  "Take a walk. Give them a phone call. I think those are all important ways that we need to stay connected with our relationships. And I think, in the long term, it can help us."

Photo: /flickr 

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