Keep company to keep healthy Friendship vital to living alone

September 22, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

Jennie Brown lives alone, but she isn't lonely -- most of the time, that is.

"The only time I get lonely is on a real pretty Sunday, and I see people going out and walking around," she says. "But I have a lot of company."

And that, doctors increasingly believe, may be part of what's kept people like the Highlandtown woman alive. Mrs. Brown turns 91 today, having outlived her husband, two world wars and any number of illnesses that might have overwhelmed someone with fewer family connections and social networks than this mother of three and grand- and great-grandmother of 40-plus.

At a time when more Americans than ever are home alone -- U.S. Census figures show that 22.6 million people were living alone, ,, an all-time high of one out of four households -- medical research is indicating that going solo may be hazardous to your health.

Two studies published by the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year, for example, found that persons with heart problems were more likely to have another heart attack or die within five years if they were without spouses or close friends and family.

"If you take patients without a spouse or without a friend they could confide in, 50 percent of them were dead in five years. In contrast, those who had a spouse or a friend who they confided in -- only 18 percent were dead in five years," said Dr. Redford B. Williams, a Duke University Medical Center researcher whose study, published in January in JAMA, followed some 1,400 patients with coronary artery disease for an average of nine years.

Dr. Williams said studies like his show it's not so much living alone that poses a health risk, it's the lack of social contact.

"The bad news is living alone could be a health factor, but the good news is if you have friends to talk to, that's enough -- whether it's regular participation in organized religious activities or clubs or just one friend you go out with every Thursday to play pinochle," he said. "Our data show if you simply have a confidant, it provided all the same protection as a spouse."

The connection between loneliness and health is something that has long intrigued researchers. Studies such as a massive one in Finland involving 95,000 people found death rates among widows and widowers jumped after the death of their spouses -- suicide and fatal accidents went up, as did fatal heart attacks and other coronary-related death.

It's "the pain and toll of loneliness," said Dr. James Lynch, a Baltimore psychologist and author of "The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness."

"Loneliness, if it's chronic, leads to depression, which alters the immune system and changes the blood pressure," said Dr. Lynch, who has spent some 25 years studying the phenomenon. "The lonely also operate in self-destructive ways."

Dr. Williams agreed. "You may not take your pills on time, or eat a low-fat diet or watch your sodium intake. You may not exercise as much without a friend who says, 'Let's get out and walk today,' " he said. "You're less likely to follow medical advice."

Indeed, researchers have found that people who live alone, primarily elderly men and women, were more likely than married couples to eat nutritionally deficient meals.

Additionally, companionship offers "a buffer" against the stresses of daily life, Dr. Williams said. "People who have someone to confide in have an effective means of reducing stress levels," he said.

Dr. Thomas Finucane, a geriatrician at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, said living alone, by itself, is not automatically a health risk for someone who is independent and relatively strong. Others may need someone around, simply for physical reasons: to call for help, for example, in an emergency or just to help with day-to-day living.

"I think that if a patient is in robust good health, living alone can be a good choice," Dr. Finucane said. "But for a patient at the other end of the scale, who is more dependent and frail, it may not be."

Most of the research about the effect of living alone deals with the elderly -- they're more likely to have existing, life-threatening conditions that are easier to quantify than, say, a younger person who may suffer minor ailments as a result of living alone, doctors said.

Yet loneliness may take its toll on even younger persons.

"The evidence in general, for all levels, all ages, is that being socially isolated is bad for your health. It's just easier to study older people because they have more chronic diseases," Dr. Williams said.

"I've found that losing your mate at 40, may be worse than losing your mate at 60 because you're totally unprepared for it," Dr. Lynch said. "This cuts across all levels of society -- all ages, both sexes."

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