According to a recent study published by the University of Glasgow in BioMed Central Medicine, researchers discovered that there was a correlation between how often a person was visited by their family and friends with their life expectancy. Those who were never visited by their family reportedly had a higher risk of dying.
Amid the ongoing loneliness epidemic, social isolation has previously been linked by researchers to a shorter life expectancy. This latest study sought to understand the effect that different types of social interaction have on our quality of life, with visits from friends and family, participating in a weekly group activity, and not living alone reportedly making the biggest difference among a group of 458,146 participants in the United Kingdom.
Participants were between the ages of 37 and 73, with the average age being 56 years old, and data was collected between 2006 and 2010. Researchers asked the participants questions about the five different forms of social interaction: how often they were able to confide in someone close to them, how often they felt lonely, how often friends and family visited, how often they participated in a weekly group activity, and whether or not they lived alone.
“We also tried to take into account lots of other factors that could explain the findings — like how old people were, their gender, their socioeconomic status, whether they were a smoker and more,” Dr Hamish Foster, a clinical research fellow at the University of Glasgow and the lead study author, explained to Insider. “And even after removing those factors from the equation it still showed that these social connections were important for risk of death.”
Depending on when the participants were recruited, researchers would revisit the questions with the participants an estimated 12.6 years later to follow up. They reportedly found that, within those years, 33,135 or 7.2 per cent of participants died, with 5112 or 1.1 per cent passing from cardiovascular-related deaths.
Strikingly, the study also found that “regardless of weekly group activity or functional components,” those who never had friends or family visit while also living alone were 77 per cent more likely to have a higher risk of death.
However, Dr Foster cautions that the study is unable to take into account both the complexity and the quality of human social interactions. “Humans are really complicated and so are our connections and our measures in this study are pretty crude compared with what humans are capable of, but this study is still very detailed and is starting to drill down into how different types of connection are important,” Foster said to the outlet.
He added that the study cannot prove that less socialisation causes death, but it does prove that loneliness and isolation can lead to not only poorer mental health but also poorer physical health.
“We need to see more society-level interventions and support that make social connections easier, more likely, and of higher quality,” Foster added. “For example, community centers, parks, places, and activities that make it easy for people to meet and connect for high-quality relationships.”
Dr Foster and his team of researchers aren’t the first to connect the dots between longer life spans and active social lives, with Netflix recently shining the spotlight on the famed blue zones - places with notably high populations of centenarians - in the docuseries, Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue. Within blue zones like Ikaria, Greece, or Okinawa, Japan, social interaction is prioritised within the community rather than being left on the backburner in favour of economic or individualistic pursuits.
As the digital age and the pandemic have brought on an increase in social isolation, Dr Foster stressed that it’s important for young people to nurture their social lives and participate in their communities.