Dr. Helen

Is Living Alone Bad for Your Health?

I have wondered this for many years, from the time I was in grad school where one of my seminar classes focused on whether or not man was really a social animal. In this article on “The Downside of Living Alone”, the author points out that those living alone has increased:

As Rose M. Kreider and Jonathan Vespa have documented in a new working paper they presented at the latest annual meeting of the Population Association of America, the percent of Americans living alone rose from a miniscule 1.9 in 1910 up to 13.7 in 2010. During the same period, the percent living with relatives rose and then fell, while the percent living only with nonrelatives did the opposite, as Kreider and Vespa’s below figure illustrates. (The category “living with nonrelatives only” has changed quite a bit, they explain: it once meant living as a boarder, renter, or employee in another family’s home, while today it most commonly refers to living with an unmarried partner.)…

The increasing popularity of living alone among young and old alike is also tied to a growing economy and increasing standard of living—both happy trends. The trend as a whole is not unambiguously positive, however: Living alone and the related phenomena of loneliness and social isolation are associated with an increased risk of mortality. Indeed, several researchers have found in recent years that they can pose as much of a threat to health as smoking and obesity. Scholars commonly study those risk factors, and resources for quitting tobacco and controlling one’s weight abound. Isolation and loneliness, on the other hand, are seldom mentioned by health professionals, and few know that they take a physical as well as a psychological toll on those who experience them. Jessica Olien at Slate and Alan Jacobs at The American Conservative have argued that loneliness is not just rarely discussed but actually stigmatized today. You can tell people you’re trying to stay on a diet or quit smoking, whereas most of us would hesitate to volunteer that we’re feeling lonely, whether to a doctor or a friend.

I suppose that the reasons people live alone lead them to be happy or not so happy being an only in an apartment or house. If you are older and your spouse died, it may be difficult. However, if you are young and single and can afford living alone in NYC, it may be fine. In this article on singles in NYC, context is key:

Given how many New Yorkers live alone—in Manhattan, 25.6 percent of households are married, whereas the national average is 49.7—one would think we’d be at an increased risk for practically all these conditions. But Cacioppo points out that loneliness isn’t about objective matters, like whether we live alone. It’s about subjective matters, like whether we feel alone. To determine how satisfied people feel with their relationships, research psychologists generally rely on a twenty-question survey called the UCLA Loneliness Scale, which breaks down our connections into three groups: intimate (whether we have a partner), relational (friends), and collective (church, colleagues, baseball teams, etc.)…

The results of these surveys have crucial—and positive—consequences for urban environments. Loneliness, it turns out, is relative. Widows are likely to feel better in a community with more widows (Boca Raton, Florida, say) than a community with only a few single elderly women. And singles are likely to feel better in a town with more singles … like New York. It’s true that marriage is still the best demographic predictor of loneliness. But Cacioppo stresses it’s a very loose predictor. People can have satisfying connections in other ways, after all, and people in bad marriages might as well be on their own: Cacioppo’s latest study, based on a sample of 225 people in the Chicago area, shows that those in unhappy marriages are no less lonely than single people, and might even be more so. Nor do rotten marriages do much for your health.

So if loneliness is relative, it seems fitting that living alone could make one happy and living with others could make one miserable or vice versa, depending on how the person views his or situation. To say that everyone living alone is at risk for poor health, etc. is a mistake. Context matters.