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Do loners live longer?

Loneliness and social isolation have become increasingly prevalent issues in modern society. With more people living alone and fewer people marrying or having children, some are wondering what effects reduced social connection may have on health and longevity. This article will examine the evidence around whether people who are more socially isolated or spend more time alone tend to live shorter or longer lives on average.

What does it mean to be a loner?

There are a few ways we can define someone as being a “loner.” In general, it refers to people who spend more time alone or have less social interaction than others. Some key characteristics of loners include:

  • Preferring to spend time alone rather than socializing
  • Having few close relationships or friendships
  • Not actively participating in social groups or activities
  • Feeling uncomfortable in large groups or crowds
  • Enjoying solitary activities and hobbies

It’s important to note that being a loner is not the same as being socially isolated. Social isolation refers more specifically to having very minimal social contact or community involvement. Loners may choose to spend a lot of time alone, but they may still have some close relationships that provide social support.

How common are loners?

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people would be considered loners. Surveys suggest a significant number of people feel lonely or socially isolated at least some of the time. For example:

  • A 2020 survey found 27% of U.S. adults reported feeling lonely.
  • In another poll, 22% said they rarely or never feel close to others.
  • Around 25-33% of Americans over 60 are considered socially isolated.

However, only a subset of those experiencing loneliness would likely be considered true loners in terms of preferring and choosing to spend time alone vs. with others. Overall, loners seem to make up a reasonably sizable minority of the population.

Do loners have shorter lifespans?

There is some evidence that being socially isolated or experiencing loneliness can negatively impact lifespan:

  • A 2015 meta-analysis found loneliness increased risk of premature death by 26%.
  • One study found socially isolated men had a 2-3 times higher risk of dying over a 6-month period.
  • Loneliness has been associated with higher risks of dementia and cognitive decline in later life.

The exact mechanisms behind this association are unclear but may involve aspects like:

  • Increased inflammation and impaired immunity
  • Higher blood pressure and cardiovascular stress
  • Poorer sleep quality
  • Increased rates of depression
  • More health-risk behaviors like smoking and lack of exercise

So social isolation does seem to be linked to higher mortality rates. But does this apply to loners specifically?

Do all loners have higher mortality rates?

Interestingly, some research indicates loners who choose to spend time alone voluntarily may not have the same risks as those who are isolated against their wishes.

For example, one long-term study tracked over 2,000 older adults for 6 years. While social isolation was associated with higher mortality, being a loner was not. In fact, in some analyses, loners had slightly lower death rates than non-loners.

This highlights that there are different categories of loners:

  • Voluntary loners – Prefer solitude and choose it freely
  • Involuntary loners – Isolated due to life circumstances out of their control
  • Temporary loners – Experience isolation periodically vs. chronically

Involuntary isolation seems to carry greater risks than voluntary solitude. Some reasons why include:

  • Involuntary loners have higher rates of depression and distress
  • Voluntary loners may still have some close relationships
  • Choosing solitude can represent autonomy and self-determination
  • Loners often find meaningful ways to occupy their time alone

Do loners have psychological benefits?

While too much isolation can be harmful, solitude does seem to offer various psychological benefits:

  • Opportunities for self-reflection and growth
  • Freedom from social constraints or pressures
  • Focus and concentration without distractions
  • Creativity, inspiration and productivity
  • Lower stress and anxiety in some individuals

Solitary activities like reading, writing, music, art, and hiking provide enjoyment and fulfillment for many loners. Times of solitude can enhance subjective well-being and life satisfaction when balanced with some degree of social connection.

This may explain why some voluntary loners seem to reap longevity benefits from their lifestyle. The enhanced meaning, purpose, and psychological fulfillment gained from solitude may offset some of the health risks of isolation.

Are loners at risk for other health issues?

While solitude-seekers may not always have shorter lifespans, higher isolation does put people at risk for certain physical and mental health conditions, including:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Cognitive decline and dementia
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Substance misuse
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Poorer immune function
  • Obesity
  • Metabolic syndrome

Even for voluntary loners, it will be important to maintain some degree of social connection and community participation to stay in good health. Complete isolation for prolonged periods can put both physical and mental health at risk. Finding the right balance is key.

Tips for loners seeking health and longevity

Here are some tips for loners aiming to enjoy the benefits of solitude while also supporting health and longevity:

  • Keep a small circle of close, trusted friends or confidants
  • Check in with family members by phone or video chat regularly
  • Join groups or clubs focused on solitary hobbies or activities
  • Make an effort to socialize occasionally even if it’s draining
  • Don’t isolate from society completely – stay somewhat involved
  • Find meaning and purpose in your alone time
  • Stay physically active with walks, solo exercise etc.
  • Speak to mental health professionals if feeling depressed

The takeaway on loners and longevity

Research on loners and life expectancy has shown mixed results. Severe social isolation does seem to increase mortality rates and health risks for many people. However, some findings indicate voluntary loners may gain longevity benefits from their lifestyle depending on how they spend their solitary time.

Maintaining some degree of social connection while selectively choosing meaningful solitary activities may allow loners to enhance well-being and longevity. Finding the optimal balance of alone time and social time is important. With the right approach, solitude-seekers can potentially boost their health while still nurturing their preference for peace and quiet.