Mix of loneliness, heart disease, and living alone

June 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

In the last two weeks many articles discussed the link between living alone and heart disease as well as living alone and loneliness. The discussions stemmed from the publication of two articles in the Archives of Internal Medicines. Skimming through the articles, I found that some journalists mixed the findings and concluded that yes, living alone leads to loneliness and heart disease and that living alone in older age is dangerous.

If we go at the source, the message is different.

The article on loneliness by the team of Carla Perissinotto at UCSF simply states that loneliness is “a predictor of functional decline and death,” in order words, your heath is not likely to improve if you feel lonely. In her sample of 1604 older adults only 18% lived alone, less than the national percentage of 30%. This study is useful simply to underscore that loneliness is not healthy. Let’s also remember that those living with others are often more likely to feel lonely compared to solo dwellers. This is one of the main arguments of Klinenenberg’s Going Solo. I agree with this argument since I often heard from Klinenberg’s informants that they felt lonelier when living with someone else as I spent time with them as research assistant. Other studies cogently argued that adolescents and young adults tend to feel lonely more often that older adults. So loneliness is not confined to older adults and older solo dwellers.

In the second article, the investigators – Udell et al. -used an international sample of 44,573 participants, 19% living alone. They concluded that “living alone was associated with increased mortality among all but the most elderly patients.” Older adults living alone were not as likely than other adults living alone to die of heart disease. Again, this is very interesting, but let’s not forget that it is really hard to draw any conclusion. So many factors may influence this finding. It would be very interesting to review the numbers by country. My sense is that social policies (like universal health care versus Medicare) may influence these data. So this is intriguing, but it is only one corner of a much bigger picture.

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