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 

Disconnected, Damaged, and Depressed

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When social connections disintegrate, so, too, does physical and mental health. The medical and psychological consequences of social isolation receive probing attention by researchers from Cornell and the University of Chicago. The findings of their study should raise particular concern at a time when many Americans have lost the vital social connections once provided by lasting marriages.

The authors begin their investigation of how “social disconnectedness” affects health fully aware that social context affects both physical and mental well-being. “Health risks associated with social isolation,” the researchers remark, “have been compared in magnitude to the well-known dangers of smoking cigarettes and obesity.” Referring to previous studies, the Cornell and Chicago scholars cite statistics indicating that “individuals who lack social connections or report frequent feelings of loneliness tend to suffer higher rates of morbidity and mortality, as well as infection, depression, and cognitive decline.”

Based on data drawn from a nationally representative sample of 2,910 older adults, this new study amplifies and clarifies earlier findings. Statistical analysis of the data permits the researchers to conclude that “both [social] disconnectedness and perceived isolation are independently associated with poorer self-rated health.” Further parsing of the data identifies “significant associations between sociodemographic characteristics and self-rated health” in ways that are “consistent with previous research.” In particular, the researchers document a significant health disadvantage among those who have not attended college, are “non-white,” and are not living with a “spouse/partner.”

The health disadvantages of those living without a “spouse/partner” are strikingly clear in all four of the statistical models deployed by the researchers (p<.001 in all four statistical models). Indeed, this association persists even in models that take into account the “perceived isolation” of the surveyed adults. Given the way that wedlock has disintegrated within the African-American community, no one should be surprised that the researchers further establish that “over 20 percent of minorities’ health disadvantage . . . may be attributed by their higher levels of [social] disconnectedness.”

Turning to questions of mental health, the researchers find a somewhat more complex pattern in which “perceived isolation . . . has a decidedly stronger association than social disconnectedness with mental health.” Still, when the researchers focus specifically on symptoms of depression, they confirm “well-established relationships between sociodemographic characteristics and depression among older adults.” In particular, the researchers find that, once again, those suffering from depression are disproportionately likely to be those who have not attended college and are not living with a “spouse/partner.” (Non-white minorities did not manifest any distinct vulnerability to depression in this particular analysis.) Though the effect drops below the level of statistical significance when the researchers take into account the perceived isolation of those surveyed, the researchers’ two simpler statistical models highlight a clear association between living without a spouse/partner and suffering from depression (p<.01).

The researchers curiously suggest that older adults might temper some of the adverse physical and mental consequences of social disconnectedness if they “adjust their expectations so that they do not develop a subjective sense of isolation.” However, as they consider strategies for “health promotion” that might help older adults to “fare better, with respect to physical and mental health,” the Cornell and Chicago scholars nonetheless suggest “policy-related efforts to increase both social connectedness and the perceived availability of social resources among older adults.” Such a recommendation could translate into more costly and bureaucratic social-work programs. Or it could translate into sane—and overdue—measures to reaffirm lasting wedlock.

(Erin York Cornwell and Linda J. Waite, “Social Disconnectedness, Perceived Isolation, and Health among Older Adults,”Journal of Health and Social Behavior 50.1 [March 2009]: 31–48, emphasis added; parenthetical citations omitted from quotations.)