Loneliness: Deadlier than you think

Research shows that loneliness is physically dangerous

Man alone on the beach
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The cover of an American Psychological Association'Monitor on Psychology Magazine reads "Friends Wanted," and highlights a large and growing body of research in psychology that increasingly shows the grave health risks of loneliness. Add this scary information to research from 2013 that shows that friendship and social networks have been declining in previous decades, and we have a big problem on our hands.

This article will review some of the health risks that loneliness presents and why loneliness may be such a problem.

Health risks of Loneliness

John Cacioppo and William Patrick in their book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, write at length about the physical dangers of loneliness, which continue to be confirmed in ongoing research. In one large analysis of nearly 150 studies, it was found that people with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive the course of the studies than their counterparts with less strong connections. This was said to be a risk twice as great as obesity and comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes daily. Loneliness has been linked to symptoms of depression and high blood pressure. Research on breast cancer survivors has shown that women who reported greater loneliness also experienced more depression, pain and fatigue than those who reported stronger social connections.

The health risks of loneliness are many.

What's more dangerous: Feeling lonely or being isolated?

Leading loneliness researcher and psychologist Cacioppo has noted that feeling lonely is actually more hazardous to one's health than being isolated. In one of his studies, he found that feelings of loneliness in over 2,000 adults over age 50 were correlated with a higher death rate over a six-year period, regardless of how many friends of family members these people had.

Cacioppo has noted that some continue to feel isolated and lonely even when they are surrounded by others. It is therefore important not just to share social circles with many, but to actually maintain strong connections.

Why does loneliness hurt so much?

Researchers such as Drs. Cacioppo and Stephen Cole have questioned why and how loneliness is so damaging, and have proposed that the most toxic effect of loneliness is that it causes one to feel chronically threatened. This chronic sense of threat keeps one stuck in a flight-or-flight response, which wears out the immune response over time. Cole has also examined the physiological response of the brain to social isolation, and suggested that the brain responds to threats of social connection in the same way it responds to threats of physical safety. This makes sense with the understanding that humans are social creatures. We need the tribe to survive.

More and more research is demonstrating the importance of strong social relationships, and showing that humans are built for connection.

Even though it can be difficult for many to make new friends and take care of their closest relationships, these actions are clearly important in order to live a healthy life.


Cacioppo, J.T. & Patrick, W. (2008) Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc: New York. 

Eisenberger, N.I. & Cole, S.W. (2012) Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health, Nature Neuroscience,15(5):669-74.

Holt-Lunstad, J; Smith, T.B.; Layton, B.J. (2010) Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review, PLoS Med 7(7).

Miller, A. (2014). Friends wanted: New research by psychologists uncovers the health risks of loneliness and the benefits of strong connections. Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, 45(1), 54-58.

Wrzus, C; Hänel, M; Wagner, J; Neyer, F.Z. (2013) Social network changes and life events across the life span: A meta-analysis, Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 139(1), 53-80.  

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