Feeling This Emotion Too Often Can Lead to Premature Death, Says New Study

A massive new study uncovers the link between social isolation and increased mortality rates, offering a new perspective on public health priorities.  

In today’s fast-paced, digitally driven world, it’s easier than ever to lose sight of the importance of human connection. The truth is, it matters—more than we might realize. One source of proof is a June 2023 study published in Nature Human Behavior, a double-blind peer-reviewed science journal, that examined the link between social isolation, loneliness and mortality. The in-depth meta-analysis, which incorporated 90 cohort studies and involved over 2.2 million individuals, may provide wake-up call about the health implications of our social well-being.

The publication of this study also aligns with a significant advisory issued by the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, in May 2023. In his public statement, Dr. Murthy declared, “Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being.” His realization came after he heard countless stories of isolation and invisibility from Americans of all ages and backgrounds. He drew a striking comparison to illustrate the severity of social disconnection, likening its mortality risk to that of smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Astonishingly, this risk even surpasses the risks associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle.

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Social isolation and loneliness

Isolation and loneliness seem like two sides of the same coin, but they differ significantly. Think of social isolation as the actual, tangible absence of social interactions. It’s when you don’t have people around you to connect with.

On the other hand, loneliness is more about feelings and perceptions. You could be surrounded by people—but if you feel disconnected or unfulfilled by your relationships, that’s loneliness. It’s not just about how many people you interact with, but the quality of those connections that really matter.

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Beyond loneliness: Unseen health risks

According to the June 2023 study, individuals who experience social isolation face a startling 32% increased risk of premature death. For those dealing with feelings of loneliness, the risk is still significant, increasing by 14%.

But that’s not all. Apart from having a higher risk of dying overall, lonely and isolated people are more likely to die from specific diseases, like heart disease and cancer. If you’re socially isolated, your chances of dying from heart disease rose 34% and cancer 24%. Even just feeling lonely can increase your risk of dying from cancer by 9%.

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A threat for chronic disease patients

Here’s where it becomes even more important—especially for those already battling chronic diseases: The study shows if you’re socially isolated and have heart disease or breast cancer, your risk of dying from any cause jumps to 28% and 51%, respectively. For isolated breast cancer patients, their risk of dying from the disease itself increases by 33%.

This is a stark reminder that fighting chronic diseases isn’t just about medicine—emotional support matters in a big way, too.

What can we do about it?

The authors of the study advocate for a renewed focus on social isolation and loneliness as vital aspects of our overall well-being. They suggest increasing awareness about their health implications among healthcare professionals and the public, utilizing innovative technologies to mobilize family and community resources, and equipping our healthcare system to identify and address these issues promptly.

Dr. Murthy also shared some simple but powerful advice: Connect more with people. Answer calls from friends, have meals together, listen to each other without getting distracted by your phone, do nice things for others, and be your authentic self. He says, “Our individual relationships are an untapped resource—a source of healing hiding in plain sight.”

He said we must work together as a community to rebuild social connections. This means changing how we set up our communities and running programs that help us build healthier relationships. He believes, “By taking small steps every day to strengthen our relationships, and by supporting community efforts to rebuild social connection, we can rise to meet this moment together.”

It’s a clear call to action for each of us: For the sake of our health and our longevity, it’s time to reach out, reconnect, and reaffirm the bonds that make us human.

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Dr. Patricia Varacallo, DO
Tricia is a doctor of osteopathy with experience in primary healthcare. She received her medical degree from the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and conducts clinical research in Sports Medicine and Orthopedics, as she is motivated by the desire to contribute to the development of innovative treatments and therapies. She is also a certified lifestyle coach for the CDC-recognized National Diabetes Prevention Program, empowering individuals to make lasting, healthy lifestyle changes. Dr. Varacallo loves to write— especially about health, wellness, and grief. Drawing from her own experiences of loss and caregiving, she loves to offer support and encouragement to those navigating their own grief journeys. Outside of her professional life, she enjoys traveling and exploring the sunny beaches of Florida with her significant other, always ready for their next adventure.