For the elderly, living alone may be a marker of strength; if you're 80 and living solo, you might be healthier and more independent than your peers who can't manage on their own.
Previous research has shown a 'very consistent relationship' between a lack of so-called social support and poor health, but measures such as social support haven't always been consistently defined. —Emily M. Bucholz, medical student at Yale University

SALT LAKE CITY — Loneliness may be much more than a passing mood. According to studies just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, living alone or feeling lonely may steal years from your life and increase the risk of disability.

For the first study, researchers at Harvard Medical school tracked more than 40,000 people who had heart disease or risk factors for developing it. Of those, 8,549 lived alone. In four years of tracking, their data showed that those who lived alone died of heart attack, stroke or other heart-related illness more often than those who lived with others.

The risk factors were particularly noticeable among those younger study subjects, ages 45 to 65, a group in which living alone was associated with a 24 percent increase in risk of early death. For those 66 to 80, the increased risk was 12 percent. Among those 80 and older, there was no increased risk of heart-related death.

According to a Time magazine article on the study by Alice Park, "It could be that for middle-aged people, for whom living alone is much less common than it is for the elderly, the single life may be a marker for other psychological or social problems that can affect health — a poor support system, depression, loneliness, job- or relationship-related stress. For the elderly, however, living alone may be a marker of strength; if you're 80 and living solo, you might be healthier and more independent than your peers who can't manage on their own."

The second study, by researchers at the University of California San Francisco, said the issue is not just living alone, but feeling actual loneliness and isolation. And many of those to whom the findings applied actually lived with others but felt lonely.

The Health and Retirement Study of more than 1,600 participants, who had an average age of 71, asked if those surveyed felt left out, isolated or without companionship. Those who answered "often" or "some of the time" to any of the three were counted as "lonely," while those who said "hardly ever" were not counted that way.

After slotting participants into categories, researchers checked in with them every two years for six years to see if they could perform activities of daily living like bathing, eating, walking, climbing stairs, etc. By the six-year point, those who were "lonely" were 59 percent more likely to have lost the ability to do some of those things than those who were not lonely. In addition, they were 45 percent more likely to have died by the end of the study than those who weren't lonely.

"I was surprised by how strong the relationship actually was," lead researcher Dr. Carla Perissinotto, assistant professor of medicine at UCSF, told Time.

The association held, she said, even when they adjusted for factors that could impact outcomes such as earlier diagnosis of depression or known medical conditions that predict declining health.

"Previous research has shown a 'very consistent relationship' between a lack of so-called social support and poor health, but measures such as social support haven't always been consistently defined," Emily M. Bucholz, a medical student and doctoral candidate at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., told CNN.

"Living alone, in and of itself, could stand for many different things," said Bucholz, who co-authored a commentary accompanying the studies. "Does it mean you lack companionship? Or is it that there is no one there to help you out with medications? Does it have to do with mobility or nutrition?"

Wrote Parks: "Loneliness can be detrimental in many ways, some of which are biological and some of which are more behavioral. Feeling isolated can trigger changes in brain chemicals and hormones that can increase inflammation in the body, for example, which can exacerbate conditions like heart disease and arthritis. Loneliness may also lead to other problems — poor sleep, depression, a disinterest in one's own health care — which can in turn contribute to disability and early death."

The California researchers wrote in their study that “assessment of loneliness is not routine in clinical practice and it may be viewed as beyond the scope of medical practice. However, loneliness may be as important of a predictor of adverse health outcomes as many traditional medical risk factors. Our results suggest that questioning older persons about loneliness may be a useful way of identifying elderly persons at risk of disability and poor health outcomes.”

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