The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Alone and Unhealthy

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressives never tire of assuring anyone expressing concerns about their zealous attack on wedlock and family life that everyone will be better off when liberated from the oppressive restrictions of these social bonds. These assurances, however, may not allay the fears of observers conversant with the emerging epidemiological literature that is providing ever-more-definitive evidence of the physiological vulnerability of men and women living outside of the protections of marriage and family. In fact, in a recent review of almost 150 relevant epidemiological studies, researchers at Johannes Gutenberg University conclude that the health risks associated with social isolation and loneliness run about the same as those of light smoking and even higher than those of obesity. These researchers also recognize that the modern retreat from wedlock and family life is multiplying the number of individuals vulnerable to these health risks.

The Johannes Gutenberg scholars set out to assess how “social isolation . . . [can] increase the risks of morbidity and mortality” in ways recognizably similar to the way “known factors, including high blood pressure, smoking, and obesity” elevate such risks. In this inquiry, the researchers take as their definition of “loneliness . . . the discrepancy between a person’s desired and actual social relationships” and as their definition of “social isolation . . . the lack of social connections.” Though more subjective than than social isolation, loneliness can be “an emotional response to social isolation.”  

To determine just who becomes socially isolated and who becomes lonely, and then to determine the likely health consequences of these conditions, the researchers review 148 studies involving a total of 308,849 individuals, tracked for an average of 7.5 years. Their review reveals that—independent of other well-documented risks (such as smoking, drinking, obesity, and physical inactivity)—loneliness and social isolation significantly jeopardize health. More specifically, the researchers calculate that (taking individuals who do not suffer from loneliness or social isolation as their baseline) “the overall odds of mortality due to loneliness and social isolation are 1.50,” making loneliness and social isolation “comparable to light smoking” in their deleterious health effects and even worse than obesity and hypertension. The researchers further report that (taking mortality rates among individuals who are socially well integrated as their baseline) “social isolation, loneliness, and living alone increased the [annual] possibility of death by ~29%, 26%, and 32%, respectively.” 

Teasing out some of the reasons that loneliness and social isolation harm health and imperil life, the researchers note the evidence that “social isolation (PSI) has damaging effects on the physical health of humans . . . manifested by activation of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis and increased depressive behavior.” This activation of the HPA axis noted among socially isolated and lonely individuals often means a maladaptive response to stress, one that can compromise the immune system, leaving affected individuals vulnerable to a wide range of pathogens. The maladaptive response to stress found especially often among socially isolated individuals may also result in “excessive inflammation” and heightened vulnerability to tumor metastasis and to diseases such as atherosclerosis and diabetes. 

The authors of the recent review of research further highlight as “one mechanism by which social isolation may negatively impact health outcomes . . . [the] altered autonomic nervous system function” that medical researchers frequently find among socially isolated individuals. This alteration in autonomic nervous system function predicts “adverse health outcomes, including reduced cognitive function, depression, [and] CVD [cardiovascular disease].”

Taking scores on Heart Failure-Heart Rate Variability (HF-HRV) tests as a measure of the health of the autonomic nervous system, the researchers underscore evidence indicating that “positive social interactions have an effect on HF-HRV,” with “marriage [being] associated with greater HF-HRV, and happy marriages [being] associated with even greater HF-HRV.” 

Unfortunately, the authors of this new review of research realize how the health protections conferred by marriage are fast becoming irrelevant for a society remade along progressive lines. “The prevalence of loneliness has increased,” the researchers acknowledge,  “commensurate with deferred marriage, increased two-income households, and increased residence in single-family homes.” The growing loneliness incident to marital and family decay is not, the researchers report, being alleviated by society’s multiplying cyber-connections. Quite otherwise. “Despite increased digital connectivity,” the Gutenberg scholars remark, “more people are experiencing social isolation. Rather than enhancing well-being, . . . social media may undermine it.”  

Having laudibly identified the real and growing problems of loneliness and social isolation in a society losing its marital foundations, the researchers call for “the development of interventional and therapeutic strategies” for dealing with the problem. The authors of this review of recent research apparently lack the political courage required to overthrow the altars progressives have raised to the impotent deities, “intervention” and “therapy.” These researchers commit no political blasphemies with their pathetic suggestion that “approaches such as meditation, qigong, tai chi, yoga, and promoting purpose and meaning in life may reduce the detrimental effects of loneliness on health.”

Politically correct social scientists may diagnose the growing problems of loneliness and social isolation. But they will offer little help in overcoming these problems until they rediscover the true wellsprings of “purpose and meaning in life” in wedlock and in the religious faith that sustains its life-protecting social bonds.    

(Ning Xia and Huige Li, “Loneliness, Social Isolation, and Cardiovascular Health,” Antioxidants & Redox Signaling 28.9 [2018]: 837-51.)