I’m an introvert. I’ll be the first to admit it. I derive energy from solitude. It’s why I love things like reading, writing, and triathlon. It’s also why I feel wiped after a full day of meetings, events, attending a conference, or anything that involves a high degree of social interaction.
This isn’t to say I don’t like being with people. Quite the contrary. I love a great conversation over a cup of coffee. The only difference is that my dosage is a bit different than an extroverts (the social interaction, not the coffee. I have no idea if there’s any correlation between personality and coffee preferences.)
But even for an introvert, there’s a fine line between personality and avoidance. In other words, when do social interaction preferences lead to social isolation? When we venture into the sphere of isolation and loneliness, both can impact your health, and maybe more than you think.
A recent study (here’s the press release) from researchers at Brigham Young University analyzed 70 studies from 1980 to 2014 that looked at how social isolation and loneliness impacted mortality risk.
Before we get to the results, a few things to keep in mind.
- Many of the studies they reviewed were with older populations (mean age = 66.0 years).
- The average follow-up time was 7.1 years, which is significant.
- 37% of the studies reviewed involved patients with medical conditions.
Okay, to the results. What did the researchers find?
“Social isolation results in higher likelihood of mortality, whether measured objectively or subjectively.”
The effect remained even after controlling for other variables, such as depression.
Okay, now by how much?
“After accounting for multiple covariates, the increased likelihood of death was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation, and 32% for living alone.”
Most interestingly, they found the greatest effect among middle-aged adults.
“Middle-age adults were at greater risk of mortality when lonely or living alone than when older adults experienced those same circumstances.”
But, I think the biggest takeaway is this. The researchers, like similar previous studies, found that loneliness and social isolation increased mortality risk just as much as other major risk factors like obesity, physical activity, substance abuse, immunization, and access to health care.
These findings give us a lot to think about. How much of our day or week do we devote to relationships? I’m guilty as any for getting caught up in work or training, sometimes forgoing an opportunity to get together with a friend.
For me, it’s easy to stay in my own world, where things are controlled and predictable. But, every now and then, spend quality time interacting with other people, AND NOT ON SOCIAL MEDIA. Leave the iPhone at home, grab coffee with a friend, and ask how they are doing. And then listen. Be present.
It might just be the best thing for your health.