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Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review

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Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. In this meta-analytic review, our objective is to establish the overall and relative magnitude of social isolation and loneliness and to examine possible moderators. We conducted a literature search of studies (January 1980 to February 2014) using MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, Social Work Abstracts, and Google Scholar. The included studies provided quantitative data on mortality as affected by loneliness, social isolation, or living alone. Across studies in which several possible confounds were statistically controlled for, the weighted average effect sizes were as follows: social isolation odds ratio (OR) = 1.29, loneliness OR = 1.26, and living alone OR = 1.32, corresponding to an average of 29%, 26%, and 32% increased likelihood of mortality, respectively. We found no differences between measures of objective and subjective social isolation. Results remain consistent across gender, length of follow-up, and world region, but initial health status has an influence on the findings. Results also differ across participant age, with social deficits being more predictive of death in samples with an average age younger than 65 years. Overall, the influence of both objective and subjective social isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality. © The Author(s) 2015.
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Perspectives on Psychological Science
2015, Vol. 10(2) 227 –237
© The Author(s) 2015
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DOI: 10.1177/1745691614568352
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Several lifestyle and environmental factors are risk factors
for early mortality, including smoking, sedentary lifestyle,
and air pollution. However, in the scientific literature,
much less attention has been given to social factors dem-
onstrated to have equivalent or greater influence on mor-
tality risk (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). Being
socially connected is not only influential for psychologi-
cal and emotional well-being but it also has a significant
and positive influence on physical well-being (Uchino,
2006) and overall longevity (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010;
House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Shor, Roelfs, & Yogev,
2013). A lack of social connections has also been linked
to detrimental health outcomes in previous research.
Although the broader protective effect of social relation-
ships is known, in this meta-analytic review, we aim to
narrow researchers’ understanding of the evidence in
support of increased risk associated with social deficits.
Specifically, researchers have assumed that the overall
effect of social connections reported previously inversely
equates with risk associated with social deficits, but it is
presently unclear whether the deleterious effects of social
deficits outweigh the salubrious effects of social connec-
tions. Currently, no meta-analyses focused on social iso-
lation and loneliness exist in which mortality is the
outcome. With efforts underway to identify groups at risk
and to intervene to reduce that risk, it is important to
understand the relative influence of social isolation and
loneliness.
Living alone, having few social network ties, and hav-
ing infrequent social contact are all markers of social iso-
lation. The common thread across these is an objective
quantitative approach to establish a dearth of social con-
tact and network size. Whereas social isolation can be an
568352PPS
XXX10.1177/1745691614568352Holt-Lunstad et al.Loneliness and Isolation as Mortality Risk Factors
research-article2015
Corresponding Author:
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Department of Psychology, Brigham Young
University, 1024 Spencer W. Kimball Tower, Provo, UT 84602-5543
E-mail: julianne_holt-lunstad@byu.edu
Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk
Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic
Review
Julianne Holt-Lunstad
1
, Timothy B. Smith
2
, Mark Baker
1
,
Tyler Harris
1
, and David Stephenson
1
1
Department of Psychology and
2
Department of Counseling Psychology, Brigham Young University
Abstract
Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. In this meta-analytic
review, our objective is to establish the overall and relative magnitude of social isolation and loneliness and to examine
possible moderators. We conducted a literature search of studies (January 1980 to February 2014) using MEDLINE,
CINAHL, PsycINFO, Social Work Abstracts, and Google Scholar. The included studies provided quantitative data on
mortality as affected by loneliness, social isolation, or living alone. Across studies in which several possible confounds
were statistically controlled for, the weighted average effect sizes were as follows: social isolation odds ratio (OR) =
1.29, loneliness OR = 1.26, and living alone OR = 1.32, corresponding to an average of 29%, 26%, and 32% increased
likelihood of mortality, respectively. We found no differences between measures of objective and subjective social
isolation. Results remain consistent across gender, length of follow-up, and world region, but initial health status has an
influence on the findings. Results also differ across participant age, with social deficits being more predictive of death
in samples with an average age younger than 65 years. Overall, the influence of both objective and subjective social
isolation on risk for mortality is comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality.
Keywords
social isolation, loneliness, mortality
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228 Holt-Lunstad et al.
objectively quantifiable variable, loneliness is a subjective
emotional state. Loneliness is the perception of social iso-
lation, or the subjective experience of being lonely, and
thus involves necessarily subjective measurement.
Loneliness has also been described as the dissatisfaction
with the discrepancy between desired and actual social
relationships (Peplau & Perlman, 1982).
Is there a need to distinguish between social isolation
and loneliness in assessing mortality risk? People lacking
human contact often feel lonely (Yildirim & Kocabiyik,
2010); however, social isolation and loneliness are often
not significantly correlated (Coyle & Dugan, 2012;
Perissinotto & Covinsky, 2014), suggesting that these may
be independent constructs and that one may occur with-
out the other. For instance, some may be socially isolated
but content with minimal social contact or actually prefer
to be alone; others may have frequent social contact but
still feel lonely. Because of the conceptual distinction
between social isolation and loneliness, understanding
their relative influence on mortality may provide insights
into possible independent pathways by which each influ-
ences risk and, in turn, guides intervention efforts.
There are several processes by which actual and per-
ceived social isolation may influence mortality risk (also
see other reviews in this special section). Social connec-
tions, or the lack thereof, can influence health and risk of
mortality via direct and indirect pathways (see Uchino,
2006). Both loneliness and social isolation are associated
with poorer health behaviors including smoking, physi-
cal inactivity, and poorer sleep (Cacioppo et al., 2002;
Hawkley, Thisted, & Cacioppo, 2009; Theeke, 2010).
Each is also associated with health-relevant biological
processes, including higher blood pressure, C-reactive
protein, lipid profiles, and poorer immune functioning
(Grant, Hamer, & Steptoe, 2009; Hawkley & Cacioppo,
2010; Pressman et al., 2005). Researchers that have
included both social isolation and loneliness have linked
these factors independently to poorer health behaviors
and biological risk factors (Pressman et al., 2005; Shankar,
McMunn, Banks, & Steptoe, 2011). However, few
researchers have examined these concurrently, and little
is known about their relative or synergistic influence.
In this meta-analytic review, our primary aim was to
focus on the relative effects of objective and subjective
social isolation on mortality (the likelihood of death over a
given time), to determine the magnitude and nature of the
association with risk of mortality, and to identify potential
moderating variables. We reviewed studies of mortality
that included measures of loneliness, social isolation, or
living alone. Because it is important to determine the effect
of social isolation and loneliness independent of corre-
lated lifestyle (e.g., smoking, physical activity) and psycho-
logical factors (e.g., depression, anxiety), we also examined
inclusion of covariates.
Method
Identification of studies
We identified published and unpublished studies of the
association between social relationships and mortality
using two techniques. First, we searched for studies
appearing from January 1980 to February 2014 using sev-
eral electronic databases: MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO,
Social Work Abstracts, and Google Scholar. To capture
relevant articles, we used multiple search terms, includ-
ing mortality, death, decease(d), died, dead, and
remain(ed) alive, which were crossed with synonyms of
the terms social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. To
minimize inadvertent omissions, we searched each data-
base twice, with searches ending on February 24, 2014.
Second, we manually examined the reference sections of
past reviews and of studies meeting the inclusion criteria
to locate articles not identified in the database searches.
A team of research assistants who were trained and
supervised by the authors conducted the searches.
Inclusion criteria
We included in the meta-analysis studies written in English
that provided quantitative data regarding individuals’ mor-
tality as a function of objective and subjective social isola-
tion (operational definitions of social isolation, loneliness,
and living alone are provided in Table 1). All studies needed
to be prospective in design, meaning that the researchers
measured one’s objective or subjective social isolation at the
study initiation and then followed participants over time
(typically several years) to determine who remained alive
and who was dead at the follow-up. Thus, risk for mortality
is an estimate of the extent to which social isolation, living
alone, and loneliness significantly predict the likelihood of
being dead at follow-up.
We extracted data when authors used measures includ-
ing the terms found in Table 1. In some cases, authors oper-
ationalized social isolation by contrasting the participants
from the bottom quartile or quintile on a social network or
integration measure (e.g., Social Network Index; Cohen,
Doyle, Skoner, Rabin, & Gwaltney, 1997) but otherwise did
not code data from measures of social networks/integration.
Because we were interested in the impact of social deficits
on disease, we excluded studies in which mortality was a
result of suicide or accident. We also excluded studies in
which the outcome could not be isolated to mortality (e.g.,
combined outcomes of morbidity and mortality). Although
we excluded single-case designs and reports with exclu-
sively aggregated data (e.g., census-level statistics), we
included all other types of quantitative research designs that
yielded a statistical estimate of the association between
mortality and loneliness/isolation. Figure 1 shows the flow
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Loneliness and Isolation as Mortality Risk Factors 229
diagram containing the details of study inclusion (included
in the Supplemental Material available online).
Data abstraction
A team of research assistants and the authors performed
the data searches and coding. To reduce the likelihood
of human error in coding, a team of two raters coded
each article twice. Two different raters performed the
second coding of each article. Thus, two distinct coding
teams (four raters) coded each article. Coders extracted
several objectively verifiable characteristics of the stud-
ies: (a) the number of participants and their composi-
tion by age, gender, health status, and preexisting health
Table 1. Descriptive Coding of the Measures Used to Assess Objective and Subjective Isolation
Type of measure Description Example of measure
Objective
Social isolation Pervasive lack of social contact or communication,
participation in social activities, or having a
confidant
Social Isolation Scale (Greenfield, Rehm, & Rogers,
2002)
Social Network Index (bottom quartile; Berkman &
Syme, 1979)
Living alone Living alone versus living with others Binary item: yes, no
Number of people in household
Subjective
Loneliness Feelings of isolation, disconnectedness, and not
belonging
Loneliness Scale (De Jong-Gierveld & Kamphuis, 1985)
UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona,1980)
Note: UCLA = University of California, Los Angeles.
1,384 Potentially Relevant Reports Identified
154 Full-text Reports Retrieved for Detailed Evaluation
84 Reports Excluded Based on Detailed Review
29 Social Isolation/Loneliness was not an Independent Variable
17 Mortality was not the Outcome Variable
9 Duplicate Report of Data Contained in another Report
8 Insufficient Information to Extract an Effect Size
8 Mortality Data was not Linked to Social Isolation/Loneliness
7 Contained No Quantitative Data
4 Non-human Subjects
2 Cause of Mortality was Suicide/Violence
70 Reports Included in the Meta-Analysis
1,230 Reports Excluded Based on Title/Abstract
339 No Mortality Indicator (Including Mixed Morbidity/Mortality)
296 No Mention of Social Isolation/Loneliness
217 No Quantitative Data (Editorial/Review/Commentary)
207 Irrelevant to Social Support/Mortality Association
81 Cause of Mortality was Suicide/Violence
42 Written in a Language other than English
31 Mortality Data was not Linked to Social Isolation/Loneliness
17 Non-human Subjects
Fig. 1. Reports evaluated for inclusion in the meta-analysis.
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230 Holt-Lunstad et al.
conditions (if any), as well as the cause of mortality; (b)
length of follow-up; (c) research design; (d) type of
social isolation (actual/perceived) evaluated; (e) num-
ber and class of covariates included in the statistical
model; and (f) exclusion of participants who were
severely ill or who died shortly after study initiation.
The latter two variables helped to address possible con-
founds (e.g., depression, health status, physical mobil-
ity, age) and reverse causality, whereby individuals with
impaired health would be more likely to report increased
social isolation or loneliness because of an inability to
engage in social contact.
For each study, we extracted the reported effect size,
making sure that odds ratio (OR) values greater than one
represented an increase in mortality as a function of
social isolation, loneliness, or living alone—and a
decrease in mortality when individuals were not isolated,
lonely, or living alone. Effect sizes less than one indicated
the opposite. To analyze the data, we temporarily trans-
formed the reported effect sizes to the natural log of the
OR and subsequently transformed them back to ORs for
purposes of interpretation.
When researchers reported multiple effect sizes within
a study at the same point in time, we averaged the sev-
eral values (weighted by standard error) to avoid violat-
ing the assumption of independent samples. We therefore
used the shifting units of analysis approach (Cooper,
1998), which minimizes the threat of nonindependence
in the data while allowing for more detailed follow-up
analyses. In a few cases in which researchers reported
multiple effect sizes across different levels of social isola-
tion (high vs. medium, medium vs. low), we extracted
only the value with the greatest contrast (high vs. low).
When a study contained multiple effect sizes across time,
we extracted the data from the longest follow-up period.
We extracted both unadjusted data and the data from the
model involving the greatest number of statistical con-
trols (although we also extracted the data from the model
utilizing the fewest number of statistical controls for a
subsequent comparison after recording the type and
number of statistical controls used within both models).
Overall, the interrater agreement for data abstraction
was adequately high for categorical variables (with
Cohen’s kappa averaging .73) and for continuous vari-
ables (with intraclass correlations for single measures
averaging .95). We resolved discrepancies across coding
teams through further scrutiny of the article until we
obtained consensus.
Results
Description of the retrieved literature
We located 79 articles reporting pertinent data, 9 of which
were excluded because they contained the same data as
another article, resulting in 70 independent studies that
met the full inclusion criteria. The complete list of refer-
ences and a table summarizing the characteristics of
those studies (Table S1) are found in the Supplemental
Material available online. Studies typically involved older
adults, with a mean age of 66.0 years at initial data col-
lection and with a mean length of follow-up being 7.1
years. Most studies (63%) involved normal community
samples, but 37% of studies involved patients with a
medical condition, such as heart disease. See Table 2 for
further descriptive data.
Three studies included data on both loneliness and
one of the objective independent variables: two for lone-
liness and social isolation, and one for loneliness and
living alone. Using a shifting units of analysis approach
(Cooper, 1998), we included data from those distinct
measures in the analyses specific to the type of measure-
ment, but all other studies contributed a single data point
to the analyses.
Effect sizes in the 70 studies had been calculated by
researchers using a variety of methods, with some
researchers reporting unadjusted values and with other
researchers using a variety of covariates. ORs ranged
from 0.64 to 3.85, with exceptionally high heterogeneity
across studies (I
2
= 97.8%, 95% CI [97.6%, 98.1%]; Q =
3,328.9, p < .0001), suggesting excessive variability in
findings across all types of data. We therefore divided the
analyses according to the number of covariates used. In
the unadjusted data group, the researchers controlled for
no other variables in the analyses. In the partially
adjusted data group, the researchers typically controlled
for one or two variables, usually age and gender. The
fully adjusted data are the model within studies with the
largest number of covariates. Effect sizes from each cat-
egory were evaluated separately, such that a single study
could contribute effect sizes to more than one category
(see Table 3).
Overall, each of the measures (social isolation, loneli-
ness, and living alone) for each type of data (unadjusted,
partially adjusted, or fully adjusted) had an OR between
1.26 and 1.83. The three measures did not differ in their
ORs for any of the three types of data, meaning that there
was no overall difference among the two objective and
one subjective factors. (Random-effects weighted analy-
ses of variance across the measures yielded all ps > .20.)
However, the type of data did matter in the analysis.
Unadjusted data yielded effect sizes of greater magnitude
than fully adjusted data (see Table 3). The differences
between unadjusted and fully adjusted data also reached
statistical significance (p < .001) when comparing data
within 27 studies in which researchers reported more
than one statistical model (e.g., unadjusted compared
with fully adjusted values) using multivariate meta-ana-
lytic methods after accounting for the .74 correlation of
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Loneliness and Isolation as Mortality Risk Factors 231
Table 2. Characteristics of 70 Studies of the Association of Mortality With Subjective and Objective Measures of Social Isolation
Characteristic M Number of studies (k) %
Year of initial data collection 1,993 46
Years of participant follow-up 7 70
% deceased by the end of data collection 24.7 66
% female 52.6 67
% smokers 31.2 28
Sample size 48,673
<200 6 9
200–499 7 10
500–999 10 14
1,000–2,999 20 29
3,000–9,999 16 23
>10,000 11 16
Age of participants
a
66.0
<50 years 8 11
50–59 years 12 17
60–69 years 11 16
70–79 years 21 30
>80 years 10 14
Location of data collection
Inpatient medical treatment setting 15 21
Outpatient medical treatment setting 11 16
Community setting (normal populations) 44 63
World region of data collection
Europe 38 54
North America 19 27
Asia 7 10
Australia 3 4
Multiple regions 3 4
Note: Not all variables sum to the total number of studies because of missing data.
a
Average age category of participants at study initiation, although not all participants within the study would necessarily be in the category listed.
Table 3. Weighted Mean Effect Sizes (Odds Ratios) by Type of Measurement
Measure k OR
+
SE 95% CI
Unadjusted data
Social isolation 3 1.83 0.185 [1.27, 2.63]
Living alone 20 1.51 0.072 [1.32, 1.74]
Loneliness 8 1.49 0.105 [1.22, 1.84]
Overall 31 1.53 0.035 [1.38, 1.70]
Partially adjusted data
a
Social isolation 6 1.46 0.162 [1.06, 2.00]
Living alone 8 1.55 0.132 [1.20, 2.00]
Loneliness 7 1.52 0.213 [0.99, 2.30]
Overall 21 1.51 0.117 [1.27, 1.79]
Fully adjusted data
b
Social isolation 14 1.29 0.100 [1.06, 1.56]
Living alone 25 1.32 0.075 [1.14, 1.53]
Loneliness 13 1.26 0.099 [1.04, 1.53]
Overall 52 1.30 0.116 [1.16, 1.46]
Note: k = number of studies; OR
+
= random-effects weighted odds ratio; CI = confidence interval.
a
Typically one or two covariates, most often age and gender.
b
Data from the statistical model in studies that contained the most covariates; these
adjusted data yielded effect sizes that were statistically significantly (p < .05) smaller than unadjusted data.
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232 Holt-Lunstad et al.
effect sizes within studies. Thus, unadjusted and fully
adjusted data not only represented conceptually distinct
classes of data but also yielded findings of different
magnitude.
Moderator analyses
Given the substantial heterogeneity of the overall results
(I
2
> 80%), we analyzed the extent to which the variabil-
ity in effect sizes could be attributable to study or partici-
pant characteristics. These analyses involved only the
fully adjusted data because multiple factors predictive of
mortality had been controlled (thus minimizing possible
confounding explanations). Study and participant charac-
teristics included both categorical and continuous data,
so we report those analyses separately.
Categorical variables. We examined categorical vari-
ables using random-effects weighted analyses of vari-
ance, beginning with the type of covariates used in the
fully adjusted models. Eight studies included multiple
covariates that were directly relevant to social support,
such as marital status, social networks, and loneliness.
These eight studies had lower averaged effect sizes (OR
= 1.17) than those of 33 studies in which no covariates
directly relevant to social support were included in the
statistical model (OR = 1.27). Otherwise, the averaged
effect sizes remained of similar magnitude irrespective of
the particular covariates that were or were not included
in the models (p > .20), including covariates relevant to
depression, socioeconomic status, health status, physical
activity, smoking, gender, and age. Different combina-
tions of covariates across studies yielded similar results.
We found no substantive differences in effect sizes (p
> .15) across the other categorical variables evaluated:
world region, data collection setting, cause of mortality,
research design, health status, and medical condition at
intake. Finding no significant differences across partici-
pant health status when using the fully adjusted data was
particularly notable because of a difference that we
observed with the unadjusted data: Studies in which par-
ticipants had a medical condition and were recruited
from a medical setting had larger unadjusted average
effect sizes (OR = 1.82) than studies with ostensibly
healthy participants recruited from the general commu-
nity (OR = 1.34, p = .003). Furthermore, with the unad-
justed data, studies in which the researchers excluded
participants with terminal conditions or participants who
died shortly after baseline data collection (whose social
isolation or social support may have been affected by
their medical condition) had higher averaged effect sizes
(OR = 1.95) than the studies in which the researchers did
not report such exclusions (OR = 1.38, p < .05). Thus,
accounting for participants’ initial health condition in the
research design resulted in systematically different find-
ings across studies. In most (81%) of the multivariate sta-
tistical models, researchers had controlled for participant
health status variables, such that we found no differences
across those conditions in the fully adjusted data. Studies
in which the researchers controlled for health status vari-
ables yielded substantially different findings from those
studies in which this was not done.
Continuous variables. We examined study and par-
ticipant characteristics involving continuous data in rela-
tion to the observed effect sizes using random-effects
weighted regression coefficients (meta-regression). We
observed no coefficients greater than the absolute value
of .20 between effect sizes and the year of initial data col-
lection, the length of follow-up, or the percentage of
female participants in each study. However, the number
of covariates included in multivariate models was moder-
ately associated with effect size (r = −.27). Visual inspec-
tion of the corresponding scatter plot indicated that when
studies included seven or more covariates, effect sizes
tended to be more homogeneous, without extremely
high values. To clarify, the inclusion of many covariates
did not substantively reduce the magnitude of the gen-
eral findings, which tended to remain in the range of
OR = 1.20–1.40, but it did eliminate all OR values greater
than 1.66.
Analyses also indicated that the association between
the effect size and the average age of participants at
intake was of a moderately strong magnitude (r = −.34
for adjusted data, and r = −.46 for unadjusted data). This
association with participant age remained of the same
magnitude when accounting for length of study follow-
up (and participants’ age at the end of the study) and
when age was or was not used as a statistical covariate.
Examination of the scatter plot and breaking down the
data into three approximately equal categories of initial
participant age helped to interpret the correlation: Studies
involving participants of an average age less than 65
years had an average effect size of OR = 1.57 for adjusted
data, and OR = 1.92 for unadjusted data; studies involv-
ing participants of an average age between 65 and 75
years had an average effect size of OR = 1.25 for adjusted
data, and OR = 1.32 for unadjusted data; and studies
involving participants of an average age greater than 75
years had an average effect size of OR = 1.14 for adjusted
data, and OR = 1.28 for unadjusted data. Adults less than
65 years of age appeared to be at greater risk of mortality
when they lived alone or were lonely compared with
older individuals in those same conditions, even after
controlling for the effect of age and other covariates on
mortality.
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Loneliness and Isolation as Mortality Risk Factors 233
Likelihood of publication bias
adversely influencing the results
Publication bias occurs when the data obtained in a
meta-analysis fail to represent the entire population of
studies because of the increased probability of nonsig-
nificant results remaining unpublished (and therefore
less accessible for meta-analytic reviews). As can be seen
in Figure 2, the data in this meta-analysis were highly
variable, and the distribution of effect sizes appeared
somewhat imbalanced toward the right side of the graph.
The distribution of the data was relatively sparse toward
the bottom of the white-shaded center of the graph, the
area of nonsignificance. This kind of distribution can sug-
gest that some nonsignificant studies were missing from
the meta-analysis. However, neither Egger’s regression
test nor an alternative to that test recommended for OR
data (Peters, Sutton, Jones, Abrams, & Rushton, 2006)
reached statistical significance (p > .05), which dimin-
ished the likelihood of possible publication bias. We
found the fail-safe N—the number of hypothetically miss-
ing studies needed to reduce the present results to zero—
to be 1,268, a number higher than the plausible number
of studies conducted. Furthermore, using the trim and fill
method (Duval & Tweedie, 2000), we did not estimate
any “missing” studies; the distribution was overall fairly
symmetric relative to the average effect size. It thus
seemed unlikely that publication bias substantively
affected the results of this meta-analysis.
Discussion
Social isolation results in higher likelihood of mortality,
whether measured objectively or subjectively. Cumulative
data from 70 independent prospective studies, with
3,407,134 participants followed for an average of 7 years,
revealed a significant effect of social isolation, loneliness,
and living alone on odds of mortality. After accounting
for multiple covariates, the increased likelihood of death
was 26% for reported loneliness, 29% for social isolation,
and 32% for living alone. These data indicated essentially
no difference between objective and subjective measures
of social isolation when predicting mortality.
The prospective designs of these studies and the sta-
tistical models that controlled for initial health status (and
several other potential confounds) provide evidence for
the directionality of the effect. Although we cannot con-
firm causality, the data show that individuals who were
socially isolated, lonely, or living alone at study initiation
were more likely to be deceased at the follow-up, regard-
less of participants’ age or socioeconomic status, length
of the follow-up, and type of covariates accounted for in
the adjusted models.
We caution scholars perusing the expanding research
literature on the association of social isolation and loneli-
ness with physical health against reliance on unadjusted
data because those data fail to account for participant
health status, a factor contributing to reverse causality
(when individuals with impaired health report increased
loneliness or social isolation because their health condi-
tion limits their social contacts). Averaged results with
unadjusted data were of greater magnitude than the
results from fully adjusted models (see Table 3), particu-
larly when participants had a preexisting health condition
and when physically ill participants were not excluded
from the unadjusted analyses. In fully adjusted models
accounting for health status and in studies with physically
ill individuals removed from analyses (thus accounting for
reverse causality), social isolation and loneliness remained
predictive of mortality. Future researchers will need to
confirm the hypothesis that when individuals are ill (and
ostensibly needing support) their risk for mortality
increases substantially when lacking social support.
Overall, the findings from this meta-analysis are con-
sistent with prior evidence that has demonstrated higher
survival rates for those who are more socially connected
(Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010) and extend those findings by
focusing specifically on measurement approaches that
assess the relative absence of social connections. Notably,
the present meta-analysis included more than double the
number of studies and 10 times the number of partici-
pants compared with the previous meta-analysis. Thus,
the field now has much stronger evidence that lacking
social connections is detrimental to physical health.
0
.1
.2
.3
.4
.5
Standard error
–1 012
Effect estimate (lnOR)
Studies
p < 1%
1% < p < 5%
5% < p < 10%
p > 10%
Fig. 2. Contour-enhanced funnel plot of effect sizes (natural log of
the odd ratio [lnOR]) by standard error for 70 studies with measures
of the association between mortality and social isolation, loneliness, or
living alone.
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234 Holt-Lunstad et al.
The average effect sizes identified in this meta-analysis
were lower than those reported previously for measures
of social networks (OR = 1.45, 95% CI [1.32, 1.59]) and
social integration (OR = 1.52, 95% CI [1.36, 1.69]) and
were much lower than complex measures of social inte-
gration (OR = 1.91, 95% CI [1.63, 2.23]; see Table 4 of
Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010). This difference may suggest
that the salubrious effects of being socially connected
may be stronger than the adverse effects of lacking con-
nections. However, it is also likely that research methods
that account for the multidimensionality of social rela-
tionships better predict mortality than measurement
focused on any single aspect of sociality, such as social
isolation. Nonetheless, identification of the relative effects
of each component may be useful in targeting those that
may be modifiable.
There is also presently no research evidence to sug-
gest a threshold effect. The aggregate results suggest
more of a continuum than a threshold at which risk
becomes pronounced. Although it is possible that indi-
viduals who are extremely lonely or socially isolated may
account for much of the elevated risk, presently too few
researchers target extremely isolated individuals in stud-
ies. Given the complexity (including objective and sub-
jective aspects) of social relationships, identifying such a
threshold seems unlikely.
Objective versus subjective isolation
Using the meta-analytic data, had we found that either
social isolation or loneliness was more predictive of mor-
tality, interventions to reduce risk could have become
more targeted. However, we presently have no evidence
to suggest that one involves more risk than the other for
mortality. Unfortunately, in the vast majority of studies,
researchers examined only one measurement approach
(social isolation, loneliness, or living alone), precluding
direct comparisons. Among the few studies in which
researchers contrasted social isolation and loneliness, the
evidence was mixed, with researchers finding that loneli-
ness was more influential in one study (Holwerda et al.,
2012), and with other researchers finding that social isola-
tion had stronger effects than loneliness in a later study
(Steptoe, Shankar, Demakakos, & Wardle, 2013). This
inconsistency may be due to differences in methodologi-
cal approaches to handling correlated psychological
states, such as depression (Booth, 2000). Our analyses
indicated that the elevated risk of mortality persisted even
when controlling for correlated components of social net-
works and multiple other factors, including depression,
with the use of covariates negating large effect sizes. In
any case, the multiple, overlapping components of social-
ity make reliance on statistical adjustment less desirable
than direct comparisons between components, such as
loneliness and social isolation.
The equivalent effects of social isolation and loneli-
ness reported here do not indicate interchangeability of
these risk assessments. Rather, the available data suggest
that efforts to mitigate risk should consider both social
isolation and loneliness without the exclusion of the
other. Because social isolation and loneliness are often
weakly correlated (Coyle & Dugan, 2012), simply increas-
ing social contact may not mitigate loneliness. Likewise,
exclusively altering one’s subjective perceptions among
those who remain objectively socially isolated may not
mitigate risk. The evolutionary perspective of loneliness
proposed by Cacioppo and colleagues (Cacioppo et al.,
2006; Cacioppo, Cacioppo, & Boomsma, 2014) presents
loneliness as an adaptive signal, similar to hunger and
thirst, that motivates one to alter behavior in a way that
will increase survival. Accordingly, loneliness is a power-
ful motivator to reconnect socially, which, in turn,
increases survival and opportunity to pass on genes.
Consistent with this perspective, intervention attempts to
alter the signal (e.g., hunger, loneliness) without regard
to the actual behavior (e.g., eating, social connection)
and vice versa would likely be ineffective. Extending this
possibility, some data have shown that those who are
both high in loneliness and social isolation had the poor-
est immune response (Pressman et al., 2005). Therefore,
both objective and subjective measures of social isolation
should be considered in risk assessment.
It is only through direct comparisons of social isola-
tion and loneliness in the same sample that researchers
can establish independent, relative, and synergistic
effects. Consequently, it is possible that different combi-
nations of social isolation and loneliness may represent
different levels of risk. For instance, those low in both
isolation and loneliness would presumably be at lowest
risk, those high in both at highest risk, and those who are
isolated but not lonely or lonely but not isolated to be at
intermediate risk. Nonetheless, there is currently insuffi-
cient empirical evidence to test this hypothesis, highlight-
ing an important weakness of the current literature that
needs to be addressed in future research.
Isolation and aging
The data in this meta-analysis should make researchers
call into question the assumption that social isolation
among older adults places them at greater risk compared
with social isolation among younger adults. Using the
aggregate data, we found the opposite to be the case.
Middle-age adults were at greater risk of mortality when
lonely or living alone than when older adults experi-
enced those same circumstances.
by guest on June 21, 2015pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
Loneliness and Isolation as Mortality Risk Factors 235
The moderating effect of age may seem counterintui-
tive in light of data indicating that individuals more than
65 years of age are more likely to report loneliness
(Dykstra, van Tilburg, & de Jong Gierveld, 2005), but
there are at least four plausible explanations for why
middle-age adults may differ from older adults in terms
of the relevance of social networks to physical health.
First, it is possible that individuals who do not die early
may be a particularly resilient group, with different social
or health characteristics than those who die at earlier
ages. Thus, the observed difference across age could be
confounded with preexisting health status, although this
interpretation is qualified by the fact that the researchers
using multivariate statistical models accounted for partici-
pant age and health status. A second explanation involves
changes in social networks as individuals transition from
full-time employment to retirement, with decreases in
socialization in occupational and public forums that are
seen as culturally normative. This possible explanation is
supported by one study in which researchers examined
loneliness after retirement and found an effect for mental
health (anxiety and depression) but not for physical
health (functional status and number of chronic condi-
tions; Bekhet & Zauszniewski, 2012). Third, it is plausible
that individuals who are alone or lonely before retire-
ment age may be more likely to engage in risky health
behaviors or less likely to seek medical treatment early,
whereas after retirement, people may attend more assid-
uously to their physical health. Finally, it is possible that
the different results across participant age are confounded
with marital status: Older adults are much more likely to
be widows/widowers than middle-age adults. Our meta-
analysis cannot shed light on these four possible expla-
nations because the first three explanations involve
variables inadequately evaluated in the present research
literature, and the variable associated with the fourth
explanation, marital status, was not coded in our analy-
ses. Although many studies indicate that loneliness dif-
fers across marital status (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008;
Hughes et al., 2004; Victor & Bowling, 2012) and that
marital status is significantly associated with mortality
(Roelfs, Shor, Kalish, & Yogev, 2011), we did not include
marital status as an indicator of social isolation because
being unmarried does not necessarily mean that one is
socially isolated, living alone, or lonely. Moreover, there
would be multiple qualitative differences in the social
networks of an older individual who had never been
married compared with one who had been married and
raised children but whose spouse had recently died, even
though both are living alone. Rather than include all pos-
sibly correlated variables (e.g., marital status, depression,
substance abuse), we evaluated only direct measures of
social isolation, living alone, or loneliness. Given the lim-
itations of the present meta-analysis, future researchers
should confirm the apparent differences across partici-
pant age and should evaluate the relative merits of the
several plausible explanations for that finding.
To better evaluate differences across age, future
researchers should involve participants from a broad
range of age groups. Most of the data in this meta-analy-
sis came from older adults. Only 24% of studies involved
people with an average age of 59 years or younger, and
only 9% of studies involved people younger than 50
years of age at intake. If future data collection with
younger adult samples confirms the age differences we
observed in this meta-analysis, then widespread beliefs
about the health risks of social isolation being greatest
among older adults are inaccurate. In any case, the meta-
analytic data, taken together with evidence for detrimen-
tal influences across the life span (Qualter et al., 2015,
this issue), suggest that future research (and possibly
interventions) should expand beyond older adults.
Conclusion
Substantial evidence now indicates that individuals lacking
social connections (both objective and subjective social
isolation) are at risk for premature mortality. The risk asso-
ciated with social isolation and loneliness is comparable
with well-established risk factors for mortality, including
those identified by the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services (physical activity, obesity, substance
abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury
and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and
access to health care; see www.hhs.gov/safety/index). A
substantial body of research has also elucidated the psy-
chological, behavioral, and biological pathways by which
social isolation and loneliness lead to poorer health and
decreased longevity (for reviews, see Cacioppo, Cacioppo,
Capitanio, & Cole, 2015, this issue; Shankar et al., 2011;
Thoits, 2011; see also Cacioppo et al., 2015; Hawkley &
Cacioppo, 2003, 2010). In light of mounting evidence that
social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society
(McPherson & Smith-Lovin, 2006; Perissinotto, Stijacic
Cenzer, & Covinsky, 2012; Victor & Yang, 2012; Wilson &
Moulton, 2010), it seems prudent to add social isolation
and loneliness to lists of public health concerns. The pro-
fessional literature and public health initiatives can accord
social isolation and loneliness greater recognition.
To draw a parallel, several decades ago scientists who
observed widespread dietary and behavior changes
(increasing consumption of processed and calorie-rich
foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles) raised warn-
ings about obesity and related health problems (e.g.,
Brewster & Jacobson, 1978; Dietz & Gortmaker, 1985).
The present obesity epidemic (Wang & Beydoun, 2007)
had been predicted. Obesity now receives constant cov-
erage in the media and in public health policy and
by guest on June 21, 2015pps.sagepub.comDownloaded from
236 Holt-Lunstad et al.
initiatives. The current status of research on the risks of
loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research
on obesity 3 decades ago—although further research on
causal pathways is needed, researchers now know both
the level of risk and the social trends suggestive of even
greater risk in the future. Current evidence indicates that
heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social rela-
tionships is greater than that from obesity (Flegal, Kit,
Orpana, & Graubard, 2013; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010),
with the risk from social isolation and loneliness (control-
ling for multiple other factors) being equivalent to the
risk associated with Grades 2 and 3 obesity. Affluent
nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone
since census data collection began and also likely have
the highest rates in human history, with those rates pro-
jected to increase (e.g., Euromonitor International, 2014).
In a recent report, researchers have predicted that loneli-
ness will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless
action is taken (Linehan et al., 2014). Although living
alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an indi-
vidual (Klinenberg, 2012), this meta-analysis indicates
that physical health is not among them, particularly for
adults younger than 65 years of age. Further research is
needed to address the complexities of social interactions,
interdependence, and isolation (Parigi & Henson, 2014;
Perissinotto & Covinsky, 2014), but current evidence cer-
tainly justifies raising a warning.
Acknowledgments
We express deep appreciation to Spencer Ford, Devin Peterson,
Lauren Brown, Naomi Worden, Breydan Wright, Eric R. Smith,
Chris Badger, and Jae Cho for their work with database searches
and coding.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to the authorship or the publication of this article.
Funding
This research was generously supported by grants from Brigham
Young University awarded to Timothy B. Smith and Julianne
Holt-Lunstad.
Supplemental Material
Additional supporting information may be found at
http://pps.sagepub.com/content/by/supplemental-data
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... Network embeddedness is associated with risk of early mortality. This conclusion was reached by Holt-Lunstad's research team in their meta-analysis of 70 studies on subjective and objective social isolation (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2015): Loneliness increased the risk of mortality by 26% as compared to social integration (i.e., absence of loneliness), and living alone increased the risk of mortality by 32% as compared to not living alone. This result builds on an earlier meta-analysis by Holt-Lunstad: Across 148 studies she found a 50% higher probability of mortality for weakly embedded persons compared to strongly embedded persons . ...
... However, in this latter study, data were collected from the general population where people were encouraged to answer a questionnaire and/or perform cognitive online, a recruitment procedure vulnerable to selection bias. The psychological stress caused by quarantine, fear, and loneliness will activate stress responses that in turn may influence cognitive capabilities (16,(47)(48)(49)(50). It is therefore crucial to compare COVID-19 cases to a matching control population who experienced the same level of social restrictions and other stressors during the pandemic. ...
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