Loneliness Is Worse for Health than Smoking

Different aspects of our lives and behavior interact to make up our health. That means ranking one action as worse than another for health is complex. But, new research found that being lonely and unhappy speeds up aging more than smoking.

Molecular damage adds up in the body and causes age-related diseases and frailty. Some people are impacted more than others. Often researchers focus on only physical fitness to prevent unhealthy or accelerated aging. But new research looked at the impact being unhappy, sleeping poorly or being lonely had on people’s aging and found it sped up the process.

They used digital models, blood tests and biometric data on more than 11,900 people in their study. They looked at 16 biomarkers for aging, including glucose and cholesterol levels and kidney function. They also considered blood pressure, heart rate, lung function and waist circumference.

People with were lonely or unhappy were 1.65 years older biologically than they were according to the calendar, or their chronological age. People who smoked were 1.25 years older biologically than chronologically.

Prof. Helene Fung from The Chinese Univ. of Hong Kong and the lead contributor to the research, said, “For decades, people have thought that they can maintain their well-being — and organizations think that they can increase their productivity — by working on the biological health of themselves and their employees, such as providing medical checkups. Yet, our findings suggest that working on psychological factors, such as maintaining a positive mood, can be equally important.”

Prof. Manuel Faria from Stanford Univ. said, “Mental and psychosocial states are some of the most robust predictors of health outcomes — and quality of life — yet they have largely been omitted from modern health care.”

Reviewing the research, Prof. Andrew Steptoe of Univ. College London said, “The researchers did not follow up participants to show that those with psychological distress actually aged more rapidly. It will be important in the future to test whether these predictions are fulfilled by repeating testing over a number of years.”

Their study found that unhappy people were 1.65 biological years older than happy peers of the same chronological age. But the study didn’t follow people, so it doesn’t show how quickly they age, if the rate of aging stays constant, or if improving people’s mental health would slow the aging. Further study is needed to learn those things.

Banner image: Huy Phan via Unsplash

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