How important are social relations for our health and well-being?

How important are social relations for our health and well-being?

via Our World in Data

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, recently wrote: “Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day”.

This ‘15 cigarettes a day’ figure has been reproduced and reported in the news many times, under headlines such as “Loneliness is as lethal as smoking 15 cigarettes per day”.1

It is indeed quite a shocking comparison since around 7 million deaths globally are attributed to smoking every year, and back-of-the-envelope calculations published in medical journals say one cigarette reduces your lifespan by 11 minutes.

Here we dig deeper to try to understand what the data and research tell us about the link between social relations and health. In a nutshell, my reading of the evidence is as follows:

  1. There is a huge amount of evidence showing individuals who report feelings of loneliness are more likely to have health problems later in their life.
  2. There is credible theory and explanation of biological mechanisms, whereby isolation can set off unconscious surveillance for social threat, producing cognitive biases, reducing sleep and affecting hormones.
  3. It’s very likely there is a causal link, but there is no credible experimental evidence that would allow us to have a precise estimate of the magnitude of the causal effect that loneliness has on key metrics of health, such as life expectancy.
  4. The fact that we struggle to pin down the magnitude of the effect of loneliness on health doesn’t mean we should dismiss the available evidence. But it does show that more research is needed.

Observational studies: A first look at the data

Measuring loneliness

Psychologists and social neuroscientists often refer to loneliness as painful isolation. The emphasis on painful is there to make a clear distinction between solitude – the state of being alone – and subjective loneliness, which is the distressing feeling that comes from unmet expectations of the types of interpersonal relationships we wish to have.

Researchers use several kinds of data to measure solitude and loneliness. The most common source of data are surveys where people are asked about different aspects of their lives, including whether they live alone, how much time they spend with other people in a given window of time (e.g. ‘last week’) or specific context (e.g. ‘at social events, clubs or places of worship’); and whether they experience feelings of loneliness (e.g. ‘I have no-one with whom I can discuss important matters with’). Researchers sometimes study these survey responses separately, but often they also aggregate them in a composite index.2

Surveys confirm that people respond differently to questions about subjective loneliness and physical social isolation, which suggests people do understand these as two distinct issues.

In the chart here I’ve put together estimates on self-reported feelings of loneliness from various sources. The fact that we see such high levels of loneliness, with substantial divergence across countries, explains why this is an important and active research area. Indeed, there are literally hundreds of papers that have used survey data to explore the link between loneliness, solitude, and health. Below is an overview of what these studies find…

…keep reading the full & original article HERE