Can You Die of Loneliness?
Obesity, drugs, and alcohol abuse are routinely named as the fastest and surest ways to an early grave. Disease, accidents, drowning, and burning are also reasons our lives are cut short. But what is the one other major factor determining what age you will die at? One factor that trumps all of these? Well, have you ever felt so alone that you could die? Have you ever felt desperately in need of somebody to share your life? Well if so, you’re in the vast majority, as humans need, above and beyond everything else, other humans in order to have a happy and healthy life. In today’s episode of The Infographics Show, we answer the very tragic question, Can You Die of Loneliness?
Recent studies claimed that moderately drinking alcohol is not a death sentence, and that overeating, while dangerous, might not be the end of the world, but the largest factor relating to an early death was, according to these studies, in fact, loneliness. For the last ten years, researchers have been looking deeply into the health implications of loneliness and social isolation, and the data is conclusive in that lonely people die earlier than non-lonely people, whether they smoke, drink, exercise or not. Brigham Young University found that social isolation increases risk of death by up to 30%, while other studies place the risk as high as 60%. Psychologically, loneliness is linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and dementia. It is safe to say that not all lonely people are depressed or suicidal, but it is also realistic to observe that of those who are suffering from psychological problems, that loneliness is part of the problem. Loneliness can have practical and circumstantial effects that might lead to one’s demise. A lonely person may have a disease that would ordinarily be recognized if he or she were amongst a group of caring people. Or maybe a sudden health event like a heart attack or a stroke may go unchecked, and nobody is there to rush the patient to a hospital. Is this death caused by loneliness, or death caused by a symptom of loneliness? Well, that’s a good question. Generally, good health and hygiene tend to be overlooked when one is living alone, advancing in age, and, prone to forgetting to take their pills, elderly people may simply slide in deathly decline without realizing it. Then factor in the chances of the house setting on fire and nobody being there to warn you. We survive better, statistically, when we have people around us.
On a practical level, we have a better chance of surviving in groups, and that is why we are biologically predisposed to live as group animals. Although we do have a carnivore’s solitary hunter instinct, we are still largely bovine and herbivorous in our social behavior.
John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, once said, “For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position, the brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects.” So according to science, yes loneliness is a very real threat, and it can kill you if you slip into a solitary world.
The type of relationship we have is of equal importance to whether we have social relationships at all. It’s not so much about how many people we socialize with but the sense of connection we feel with those people. And relationships with the wrong types of people can lead to an early death. We are statistically more likely to be murdered by somebody we know, and so called enabling relationships such as co-dependent drug dependent relationships are worse for the individuals than had they not been together at all. Some people who have been subjected to abusive relationships in childhood are hardwired to seek solitude as for them, that was the coping strategy that kept them safe. It is important that they break this way of thinking, as it will ultimately lead to them having a longer, healthier life.
But what about those who simply prefer isolation? Those who are more comfortable and content being by themselves, who value solitude, and feel awkward in social settings? Monks, holy men, Sages, Sadhus, all these figures throughout history have been known to acquire knowledge and wisdom through isolation, and why not? Having our social minds constantly set to “on” doesn’t give a chance for us to rest and replenish, so there is an argument for temporary isolation. Solitude does help productivity and self-discovery, it also encourages deep thinking, and it helps people work through problems more effectively. This is why great scientists like Einstein, artists such as Van Gogh, and religious leaders such as Buddha, spent a lot of time working out problems by themselves.
Ultimately, although it depends on the individual, sociability and interaction with other humans is fundamental to living a longer, fuller life. And yes, loneliness can kill, you can die of it, and what’s more, it is perhaps the world’s biggest killer.
So, do you enjoy being alone? Or do you feel like loneliness is killing you? Let us know in the comments!