Study Suggests Being Single Could Cause a Faster Death Than Obesity

By: Lauren Fokas | Published: Jun 13, 2024

When people think about what they will need to live a long life, most people focus their attention on physical health. However, a new study shows that one’s happiness could actually be a more determining factor in longevity.

A study conducted at Brigham Young University showed a direct correlation between loneliness and cognitive decline; loneliness increased the risk of death by 50%, while obesity only increased it by 30%. In other words, being single or disconnected from others may cause a faster death than obesity.

The Average Age for Marriage Is Increasing

Many modern people have decided to stay single for much longer than their parents did. According to the US Census Bureau, the median age for marriage is currently 28.6 for women and 30.5 for men.

A single woman looks annoyed next to a happy couple

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While some people are simply waiting for the right person and refusing to settle for anything less, others don’t feel the need to commit to another person for life. They feel complete with their work, friends, family, and other relationships.

Being Single Doesn’t Always Mean Being Lonely

That being said, it’s important to understand that both in scientific studies and in life, “single” is not always synonymous with “lonely.” Some single people are extremely connected to those around them and wouldn’t consider themselves lonely at all.

A woman sits alone in her home, happy

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Therefore, in the various studies that explored how loneliness can affect longevity and health, researchers specifically studied “lonely individuals” instead of focusing on “single people.”

The Brigham Young University Study on Loneliness

A group of researchers led by professor of psychology Dr. Julianna Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University in Utah tracked the well-being of 218 individuals. They noted their levels of loneliness, isolation, and their physical health.

Hands holding several pages of collected data with a tablet

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The study, entitled “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factor for Mortality,” found that, while obesity increased a person’s risk of death by 30%, loneliness increased the risk by an almost unbelievable 50%.

Being Connected to Others Is Essential for a Long Life

Many people don’t realize just how important human connection is to both emotional happiness and physical health. In fact, it is absolutely essential for survival.

A group of senior citizens out in the city having fun together

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Dr. Holt-Lunstad explained to the New York Post, “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need, crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment.”

Why Are Modern Humans so Accustomed to Isolation?

The doctor continued, “Yet an increasing portion of the US population now experiences isolation regularly.” So, why are human beings more isolated and lonelier than ever before?

A woman sits on her couch and looks out the window, sad

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This phenomenon is about much more than just living without a spouse. Many argue that separation from family and friends in the home and nearby community has directly led to such inflated numbers of loneliness.


Human Beings Have Lost Their Sense of Community

In ancient times, humans lived in small collectives known as tribes. These communities were made up of several families that worked, lived, celebrated, and grieved together. Today, people move out of their familiar homes as soon as they reach adulthood, and many move hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.

An illustration of an indigenous tribal community

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Additionally, more people than ever before live alone without any family members or friends. The sad truth is that we as a species have changed our social experience, and it’s proving to be detrimental to our physical and mental health.


The COVID-19 Lockdown Intensified This Reality

Although living alone and away from family has become a social norm, the COVID-19 lockdown absolutely intensified this reality. For months, many people around the world lived in almost complete isolation.

A photograph taken during the COVID-19 lockdown of a grandmother and her granddaughter touching between a glass window with masks on

Source: iStock

Even those who did occasionally see a family member or friend were separated by glass, plastic, masks, and several feet of space. The pandemic immensely increased the number of people experiencing extreme loneliness, which scientists now know was detrimental to their physical health as well.


How Does Loneliness Affect One’s Physical Health?

Physician and researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, Dr. Dhruv Khullar, told the New York Times that loneliness is “a growing pandemic.”

A man sits up in bed in the middle of the night because he can’t sleep

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He explained that isolation can cause several physical ailments, including abnormal immune responses, accelerated cognitive decline, and consistently disrupted sleep. And a study conducted by Harvard noted that loneliness can even lead to Alzheimer’s disease.


Loneliness Can Lead to Depression, Which Increases the Risk of Death

Essentially, what these many studies found is that loneliness often leads to depression, which scientists understand drastically increases the risk of physical ailments and the risk of death.

A photograph of a man through a window looking extremely depressed

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So, while loneliness unquestionably has negative side effects, those who experience depression because of their loneliness are far more susceptible to the noted consequences like poor immune systems, insomnia, and dementia.


Quality Over Quantity Is More Important to Combat Loneliness

It’s interesting to note that while loneliness and isolation are real problems, the solution is not to simply surround oneself with as many people as possible. People who do not bring joy or support into your life won’t help combat the mental and physical side effects of loneliness.

A couple in love hugs outside

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As Dr. Holt-Lunstad explained, “Being unmarried is a significant risk, but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”


Humans Need People in Their Lives to Survive and Thrive

Remember, all humans need people to survive and certainly to thrive, but more isn’t always better.

Several friends hug in a line while watching the sunset outside

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Science shows that to live a long and happy life, it is essential to make real and lasting connections with others, whether that be family, friends, coworkers, or, of course, romantic relationships.