Last week at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, researchers from Brigham Young University presented the results of their analysis of more than 200 studies involving almost 4 million people on four continents which showed that loneliness, social isolation or living alone increases the risk of premature death by up to 50%, more than that of obesity and other major health issues.

Conference summary:

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For starters, let’s clarify the difference between loneliness and social isolation.  Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are different. Social isolation is when people have limited or no contact with others. It is a lack of social interaction with relatives, neighbors, colleagues, etc. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an emotion, a feeling. It is sadness or distress from being alone.  Some people can be socially isolated and not lonely, others can be lonely but not socially isolated. Bottom line – they both increases the risk of premature death.

So, what makes a person more likely to be lonely and/or socially isolated? According to Connect2Affect, (an initiative of the AARP Foundation aimed at ending social isolation) people dealing with the following are at increased risk:

Transportation issues
             no access to transportation or no longer able to drive
Life changes
             retirement, death of a partner or friend/s, becoming a caregiver
Health challenges
              hearing loss, mobility loss, mental health issues
              rural living, poverty, marginalization (racial/ethnic minority, LGBT)

Below is a quick loneliness self-assessment from AARP, Inc. Take a few minutes to do it yourself and then share it with others. Not only may it start a conversation about loneliness and social isolation, but it just might be the impetus for changing someone’s life.

For each of the following statements, circle the number that indicates how often you feel the way described using the numbers below.
There are no right or wrong answers.

 1= Never
                                            2= Rarely
                                            3= Sometimes
                                            4= Always

1. How often do you feel unhappy doing so many things alone?                                      1    2    3   4

2. How often do you feel you have no one to talk to?                                                         1    2    3   4

3. How often do you feel you cannot tolerate being so alone?                                          1    2    3   4

4. How often do you feel as if no one understands you?                                                     1    2    3   4

5. How often do you find yourself waiting for people to call or write?                             1    2    3   4

6. How often do you feel completely alone?                                                                          1    2    3   4

7. How often do you feel unable to reach out and communicate with                             1   2    3    4  
    those around you?   

8. How often do you feel starved for company?                                                                   1    2    3   4

9. How often do you feel it is difficult for you to make friends?                                        1    2    3   4

10. How often do you feel shut out and excluded by others?                                            1    2    3   4

                                                                                                            Total __________


To get your total score, add up the number from each question response.
The average loneliness score on the measure is 20.
A score of 25 – 29 indicates a high level of loneliness.
A score of 30 or higher indicates a very high level of loneliness.

If you score high on the loneliness scale, here are a few things Eldercare Locator and AARP suggest might help to address or prevent loneliness:

  • Volunteer at a shelter or a hospice, tutor children, or help out with a kids' sports team.
  • Schedule a time each day to call someone
  • Use social media to stay connected to friends and family. If you don’t know how to use social media, call your local community college, senior center or library to find out about classes.
  • Take up an old hobby and connect with others with the same hobby
  • Take a class to learn something new and meet new people.
  • Check out the activities, programs and events at faith-based organizations.
  • Change the situation by changing your thoughts, expectations and behaviors toward others.
  • Talk with a licensed therapist

For more information:   

All the lonely people

Mayo Clinic
Tips to Avoid Social Isolation during cancer

National Institutes of Health
Medical Isolation and your emotions

National Institute on Aging
Seminar on Loneliness and Social Isolation

United Way of Northern NJ
Caregivers Coalition

Eldercare Locator