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People who lack social connection have a higher risk of mortality

Lacking two types of social connection – infrequent social contacts, combined with feelings of isolation – may contribute to a higher risk of death, according to a new study.

The research found that while having either low levels of objective social connections (such as not seeing friends and family often) or subjective feelings of lacking social connection (such as a feeling of not being able to confide in someone close or often feeling lonely) increased the risk of dying, lacking both types of social connection together further increased that risk.

Currently, we know that insufficient levels of different types of social connection, like feeling lonely or not seeing friends and family often, is associated with the risk of premature death. This new study, which is led by the University of Glasgow and published in BMC Medicine, found that lacking multiple forms of social connection further increased the risk of dying prematurely.

The research – which looked at 458,146 people with an average age of 57 – also found that those who lived alone, who also lacked other markers of social connection (such as having infrequent contact with friends and family or not participating in regular group activities), may be at a particularly high risk of dying.

Further, the study suggested that the effects of certain extreme markers of social disconnection (such as people who lived alone and also never saw friends and family) could be strong enough to mask the benefits of having some positive social connections (like participating in regular group activities).

Dr Hamish Foster, Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s School of Health and Wellbeing, said: “Our study looks at several dimensions of social connection and found that combining different dimensions could affect the risk of premature death more than previously realised. This means that, when tackling problems like loneliness and social isolation, we need to assess these different dimensions both separately and in combination if we are going to identify and support those who are most isolated in society.”

The paper, ‘Social connection and mortality in UK Biobank: a prospective cohort analysis,’ is published in BMC Medicine. The work was partly funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC).

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