People who lack multiple forms of social connection have a higher risk of mortality, according to a new study from the University of Glasgow.
Lacking objective social connections, such as not regularly seeing friends and family, as well as subjective feelings of a lack of social connectedness, such as feeling lonely, was found to increase the mortality risk further when combined.
The findings are published in BMC Medicine.
According to the Government’s Community Life Survey 2020/21, six per cent of people in the UK feel lonely, and the NHS states that severe loneliness can increase the risk of some physical conditions, such as dementia and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Loneliness can increase with age, and Age UK figures show 3.6 million older people in the UK live alone, of whom over 2 million are aged 75 or over.
Using data from the UK Biobank linked to mortality registers, the researchers analysed data from 458,146 participants. Social connection was assessed by looking at how often participants had the ability to confide in someone close to them and how frequently they felt lonely. The researchers also looked at the structure of their social connections, including the frequency of friend and family visits, weekly group activities, and whether they lived alone. The results were compared against all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality.
Feeling lonely or not seeing friends or family has been associated with the risk of premature death, but the new study shows that a lack of multiple forms of social connection can further increase the risk of dying prematurely.
The researchers found that those who lived alone, who also lacked other markers of social connection, such as having frequent contact with friends and family or participating in regular group activities, may be at a particularly high risk of dying.
In addition, the findings also highlight the importance of the structure and component of social contact. The effects of extreme markers of social disconnection, such as people who lived alone and also never saw friends and family, could be strong enough to mask the benefits of having some positive social connections, like participating in regular group activities.
Dr Hamish Foster, clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Health and Wellbeing, said: ‘Our study looks at several dimensions of social connection and found that combining different dimensions could affect the risk of premature death more than previously realised. This means that, when tackling problems like loneliness and social isolation, we need to assess these different dimensions both separately and in combination if we are going to identify and support those who are most isolated in society.’
The researchers highlight the need to consider both the functional and structural components and the quality of social connection to identify and help the most isolated in society.