Can a Social Life Save Lives?

Mortality risks were higher in socially isolated individuals new study reports

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) Typically, humans enjoy the company of other people and enjoy being social. But might there be health risks for those who don't fulfill their basic need for companionship?

Results from a recent study showed that socially active men and women tended to live longer than socially isolated individuals.

This study reported that social isolation predicted death rates in the same way as smoking and high blood pressure could.

According to the authors of this study, it is important for doctors to assess patients' social activities. Social isolation can play an important part in evaluating a patient's health.

"Have a discussion with your doctor about social support."

Matthew Pantell, MD, MS, from the University of California, Berkeley–University of California, San Francisco Joint Medical Program, and colleagues aimed to examine the relationship between social isolation and mortality (death).

The study consisted of 16,849 participants who ranged in age from 25 years old to more than 89 years. A total of 8,974 participants were women and 7,875 were men. The study collected data about participants between 1988 and 1994. The average follow-up time of participants was 14.1 years.

The researchers rated the participants' level of isolation on a 0-to-4-point scale at the beginning of the study. Participants who scored a 0 were regarded as the most socially isolated and participants who scored a 4 were regarded as the least socially isolated.

The participants received one point each for their marital status, amount of contact with other people, active participation in religious groups and active participation in clubs or other organizations.

About 17.1 percent of the women and 21.3 percent of the men were included in the most socially isolated category.

The study found that the most socially isolated women had about a 75 percent greater mortality risk than those who were less isolated. The most socially isolated men had about a 62 percent greater mortality risk compared to those who were not isolated.

Regarding the individual points, mortality risks were about 19 percent higher in women who were unmarried than in women who were married, about 25 percent higher in women who did not interact with friends and family versus those who did and about 35 percent higher in women who did not participate in religious activities versus those who did.

The researchers also found that mortality risks were about 23 percent higher in men who were unmarried than those who were married, about 27 percent higher in men who were not religiously active versus those who were and about 15 percent higher in men who were not in clubs versus those who were.

All in all, participants who were the most socially active tended to live longer than those who were less socially active.

There were several factors that may have affected the results of this study. First, the data collected about the participants' social activities were based upon self-reports. Furthermore, some cases of social isolation may have been the result of various, unrelated health problems. Lastly, the frequency of isolation may have changed over the years.

Despite these limitations, the authors of this review reported that their findings provide important insight into the relationship between social isolation and mortality.

“Our findings highlight the value of isolation as a risk factor for mortality and emphasize the clinical importance of understanding a patient's social integration and support,” Dr. Pantell and colleagues wrote.

This study was published online September 12 in the American Journal of Public Health.

The research was funded by Dean's Summer Fellowship grant from the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), a UCSF Clinical and Translational Science Institute Pathways to Careers in Clinical and Translational Research Quarterly Fellowship grant and a thesis research grant from the University of California, Berkeley—UCSF Joint Medical Program.

Review Date: 
September 20, 2013
Last Updated:
September 23, 2013