If you have any doubt that humans are social animals, just read my article on holiday survival . But being social doesn’t just affect quality of life. It can affect your quantity of life as well.
Researchers at the University of California have found that lack of social interaction—in other words, social isolation—is a risk factor for premature death.1 In fact, it even rivals the effects of “traditional” factors for mortality, like smoking or high blood pressure.
Doctors routinely ask how many packs of cigarettes a patient smokes a day. Blood pressure is routinely monitored in doctors’ offices, drug stores, and even at home (although, amazingly, up to half of the 50 million people who should have their blood pressure monitored don’t). But how often do doctors evaluate their social circles?
Of course, social isolation is not as quick and easy to evaluate as other risk factors. There is a tool, though, that doctors can use to gather important information about a person’s social relationships. The Social Network Index measures social isolation by looking at factors such as marital status, frequency of contacts with others, and participation in groups.
People with higher scores on the Social Network Index are healthier. We know, for instance, that women with suspected coronary disease who have strong social networks are less likely to die.2 And research continually shows that being married is strongly associated with better health and lower mortality.3
This new study sheds some light on why these social connections make us healthier.
Being alone is as dangerous as smoking
Looking at data from almost 17,000 adults, the researchers found that greater social isolation put men at a nearly two- thirds higher risk of dying—almost exactly the same increase that smoking causes. In women it’s even more striking: lonely women have a three-quarters higher risk of death than women with healthy social networks.
A social network has a lot of components, but this study found that for men, the most important risk factors were being unmarried, participating infrequently in religious activities, and lacking club or organization affiliations. In women, being unmarried, infrequent social contact, and participating infrequently in religious activities topped the list.
Even if your doctor is too rushed to ask you about your social relationships, you can take stock of your own social index with four easy questions:
• Are you married?
• Do you participate in religious activities?
• Do you belong to a group or club?
• How frequently to do you get together with other people?
If your answers show you could use some more social interaction, take advantage of the season and make some connections. Join a volunteer group. Go to church, temple, or synagogue with your family and friends. And if you aren’t married, while you’re there, maybe keep an eye out for that special someone.
1. Pantell M, Rehkopf D, Jutte D, Syme SL, Balmes J, Adler N. Social isolation: a predictor of mortality comparable to traditional clinical risk factors. Am J Public Health. 2013;103(11):2056-2062,
2. Rutledge T, Reis SE, Olson M, et al. Social networks are associated with lower mortality rates among women with suspected coronary disease: the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute-Sponsored Women’s Ischemia Syndrome Evaluation study. Psychosom Med. 2004;66(6):882-888.
3. Lin CC, Rogot E, Johnson NJ, Sorlie PD, Arias EA. Further study of life expectancy by socioeconomic factors in the National Longitudinal Mortality Study. Ethnicity & Disease. 2003;13(2):240-247.