A study from Germany presented at a medical meeting in Vienna in May (2020) showed that people who are socially isolated are almost 50 percent more likely to die from any cause than people who have strong social relationships. Study leader, Janine Gronewold, Ph.D., of Germany’s University Hospital in Essen, noted that we’ve known for some time “that feeling lonely or lacking contact with close friends and family can have an impact on (our) physical health.”
The study included 4,316 individuals whose average age was 59.1 years. None had cardiovascular disease at the outset. All were followed for an average of 13 years. Initially, the researchers collected information on the participants’ marital status and cohabitation (if any), contact with close friends and family, and membership in political, religious, community, sports or professional organizations.
During the following 13.4 years, 339 participants had heart attacks or strokes and 530 of them died. After accounting for other influencing factors – such as known cardiovascular risk factors – that might have contributed to the deaths, the researchers determined that a lack of social integration increased the risk of future cardiovascular events by 44 percent and the risk of death from all causes by 47 percent. They also reported that a lack of financial support was linked to a 30 percent increased risk of cardiovascular events.
Dr. Gronewold noted that we don’t yet understand why socially isolated people have sub-optimal health-outcomes “but this is obviously a worrying finding, particularly during these times of prolonged social distancing.” Her associate, Professor Dirk M. Hermann, M.D., added, “What we do know is that we need to take this seriously, work out how social relationships affect our health, and find effective ways of tackling the problems associated with social isolation to improve our overall health and longevity.”
These findings reinforce the fact that while we certainly can be happy by ourselves, staying connected with others can make us both happier and healthier. Prolonged isolation can lead to sadness, anxiety, disease, and ultimately to premature death. The opposite is true when we are connected to others and involved as an active member of a community. Research shows that close, authentic relationships are the key to both physical health and happiness and that people who show the greatest satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 are the ones who are healthiest at age 80. Close relationships are better predictors of a long and healthy life than IQ, genetic makeup, money, fame or social class. In fact, the level of satisfaction with one’s relationships is a better predictor of physical health than cholesterol levels! To me, this affirms how critical our relationships are in life and why staying connected is so important.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Janine Gronewold et al, “Association of social relationships with incident cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality.” EAN Virtual Congress 2020.