For older adults, extreme loneliness can increase risk of early death by 14 percent, USA Today reported.
After reviewing survey responses from more than 2,100 adults aged 55 and older, researchers found that feeling lonely was almost as strong a risk factor for early death as low socioeconomic status. Being poor increased premature death risk by 19 percent.
"Loneliness is a risk factor for early death beyond what can be explained by poor health behaviors," psychologist John Cacioppo, director of the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, told USA Today. "Feeling lonely isn't only unhappy; it's unsafe."
The study found that feelings of loneliness and isolation are tied with less restful sleep, higher blood pressure, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, increased depression and lowered feelings of living a meaningful life. Poor quality sleep can also speed aging, researchers said.
To avoid these feelings and their side effects, Cacioppo suggests staying in touch with former colleagues, participating in family activities and maintaining meaningful relationships.
"People underestimate the importance of sharing good times with friends and family, “ he said. "What's really important is companionship and mutual assistance and protection. Having high-quality relationships with a few people is one of the keys to happiness and longevity. The stresses and challenges of life are more easily endured if we can share them with someone in whom we can confide and trust."
The research was presented Sunday at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Chicago.