People should make an effort to visit friends and loved ones at least once a month to stop them feeling lonely and reduce their risk of dying early, a study suggests.
Researchers have discovered that people who never or rarely have the company of their nearest and dearest are more likely to die prematurely.
And scientists warned that even those who live with someone else can be at risk if they don’t have frequent visitors.
Previous studies have already linked loneliness to an increased risk of dying prematurely, but experts wanted to explore how different social interactions could have an impact.
The team from the University of Glasgow analysed five different types of social interaction reported by more than 450,000 people.
Researchers found people who participated in weekly group activities – such as a singing class, going to church or groups like Men’s Sheds – were less likely to die during the study
Participants had an average age of 57 at the start of the study and they were followed for around 12 years.
They reported how often they were visited by family or friends, whether or not they participated in weekly group activity and whether or not they lived alone.
They were also asked about whether they felt able to confide in someone close, and whether or not they ‘often’ felt lonely.
During the follow-up period, 33,135 people died.
Analysis, published in the journal BMC Medicine, found that people who reported being visited by friends and family less than once a month were more likely to die over the next 12 years.
Those who were never visited by loved ones were at a 39 per cent increased risk of death compared to those who were visited daily.
What are the risks of loneliness in older people?
Older people are especially vulnerable to loneliness and social isolation and it can have a serious effect on health.
There are hundreds of thousands of people of the age of 75 in England who are lonely and cut off from society.
According to Age UK, more than 2 million people in England over the age of 75 live alone, and more than a million older people say they go over a month without speaking to a friend, neighbour or family member.
Getting older and weaker, leaving the workplace, deaths of spouses and friends or no longer being the hub of their family can contribute to loneliness.
Loneliness can lead to depression and a serious decline in physical health and wellbeing.
Many people who are lonely find it hard to reach out.
The authors said people who were visited at least once a month had a significantly lower risk of dying, indicating there may be a protective effect from this social interaction.
But the reduced risk appeared to stay the same whether a person was visited daily, a few times a week, weekly or monthly.
Study co-author Jason Gill said: ‘The risk seems to be [among] people who are very isolated, and never ever see friends and family or see them less frequently than once a month.
‘Ensuring that you visit your lonely and isolated relatives is a super helpful thing to do because it seems to be important that people have a visit at least once a month.’
People who lived with someone else also appeared to need monthly visits.
‘There was still a risk associated of infrequent friends and family visits even among those not living alone,’ said lead author Dr Hamish Foster.
The researchers also found people who participated in weekly group activities – such as a singing class, going to church or groups like Men’s Sheds – were less likely to die during the study.
Dr Foster explained that the reason for their findings could be that people who are more socially isolated may partake in more unhealthy behaviours like smoking or drinking.
Meanwhile friends and family might offer a particular level of support for people and may help them access health services, which could contribute to the protective effect, he added.
Those who received more frequent visits from loved ones may also benefit from ‘higher quality relationships’ compared to those who visit less frequently.
The researchers said the findings could be used to help identify people at a higher risk of dying due to social factors.
Commenting on the study Caroline Abrahams, charity director at Age UK, said: ‘This is very interesting new research which confirms just how useful it is for us as we age to have close friends and family members who visit and care about us.
‘The emerging health or other problems an older person has are more likely to be spotted in this situation, and positive and timely action taken.
‘It’s really easy for all of us, at any age, to ignore a health concern and put off doing something about it, but having someone close we can confide can make a real difference.
‘If we have one or more relationships of this kind it is also much more likely that we will be urged to seek the professional help we need.
‘For some older people the offer of going along with them to an appointment or at least helping with transport may make the difference between them actively pursuing a health concern or continuing to brush it off, until they become seriously unwell.’
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