Friends are a matter of life and death

 
Elderly men sharing a joke

We are such a cynical lot. When a Downing Street advisor points out that loneliness is probably more dangerous to our health in retirement than smoking, there are plenty who immediately assume that the advice is part of some dastardly statist plot to get pensioners out of their one-bed flats to sweat their final years away on a factory production line - see below for one example.

But might it be true? And if it is, should we take isolation as seriously as we do obesity or smoking in our health strategies?

The findings which inspired David Cameron's nudge unit come from a meta-analysis (analysing lots of different pieces of existing research) of 148 studies into the effects of social isolation on mortality conducted by academics at Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina in the US.

The researchers were able to look at the lives of almost 309,000 people for an average of 7.5 years. (That is a seriously big sample.)

What emerged was that those with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those who lived more solitary lives. (And that is a seriously powerful finding.)

The effect was consistent across a number of factors:

  • age
  • sex
  • health status
  • follow-up period
  • cause of death

This isn't research showing that pensioners are better off having friends - it suggests that we are all likely to enjoy health benefits if we have busy social lives.

The 'dastardly statist plot' view

Political blogger Anna Raccoon writes: "It's official. There is a peril more likely to carry you off to your maker in the wee small hours of the morn than smoking. It must be so, the government says it is so.

No, it's not eating more than three pomegranates a week, nor taking a bath with less than five people. Give up?

It's enjoying a peaceful retirement. Quit yer laughing, they're deadly (sic) serious. They are forming government policy round this notion as we speak."

No-one is suggesting it is wrong to live alone or enjoy one's own company. But human beings are social creatures and starved of contact we can, quite literally, die.

The conclusion to the US research makes the point that "many decades ago high mortality rates were observed among infants in custodial care (ie, orphanages), even when controlling for pre-existing health conditions and medical treatment".

It was then noticed that lack of human contact predicted mortality. "The medical profession was stunned to learn that infants would die without social interaction. This single finding, so simplistic in hindsight, was responsible for changes in practice and policy that markedly decreased mortality rates in custodial care settings."

Loneliness is bad for our health. Seriously bad. Doctors have known this for decades.

Two women at the swimming pool Friendship can make the heart grow stronger

An article in Science magazine in 1988 noted that "social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health - rivalling the effect of well-established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity".

The more recent research concludes that, if the impact of isolation is potentially so great on our health, we should do more to prevent it. "Medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections; hospitals and clinics could involve patient support networks in implementing and monitoring treatment regimens and compliance, etc."

This table show the relationship between different aspects of lifestyle and mortality, comparing the odds of decreased mortality:

Comparison of odds of decreased mortality across several conditions associated with mortality

Company is much more important in reducing our risk of dying than losing weight, taking exercise or giving up booze or fags.

And do you know what? I would much rather Whitehall advisors were telling us about this stuff than trying to spin some new government wheeze.

I am not going to take up smoking or down a bottle of whisky a day because of the research. They are really bad for you too. But I might work a bit harder to be a good friend.

 

More on This Story

Comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 1.

    Hell is other people and that includes whoever came up with this. I find my own company quite enough and with a wife I've enough social irritation to be going on with. The rest of you can go to blazes for all I care about the human condition.

  • rate this
    -10

    Comment number 2.

    The road to hell is good intentions! Other peoples hell, your good intentions! Agree with empiredown. Let us live the lives we choose to lead, please.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    Being of working age and struggling to find work I find this quite offensive. I wish I was old enough to retire and enjoy my active social life with adequate support - instead of being regarded as a shiftless scrounger by the layabouts that 'work' at the job centre & work programme, never mind the chattering classes.

  • rate this
    +25

    Comment number 4.

    Ahh - seems a shame then that we have dramatically reduced funding over the last few years for all those places people could go and form friendships :( Council run sports facilities are now mainly run commercially, Adult Ed has been restructured towards exam success rather than social access, and the libraries are all closing down. We never really do get priorities right, do we?

  • rate this
    +19

    Comment number 5.

    The first three posts seem to prove the point. Antisocial, miserable and probably downright offensive to Mrs Empiredown. This is what having no friends and wanting none will do for you.

    We're all mortal, but I see no benefit in rushing headlong to the grave in a foul mood, when you can just as easily look for the joy in life and those around you every day.

 

Comments 5 of 77

 

This entry is now closed for comments

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Arash AF8Naughty Brits

    From scrappy upstarts to legendary brands, six speed demons that hail from the UK

Programmes

  • A man holds a sign which reads Bring Back Our GirlsHARDtalk Watch

    Why there is still hope and optimism for the rescue of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.