By Jennifer Lilonsky ( | First Posted: Mar 26, 2013 03:23 PM EDT

(Photo : Reuters )

A new study that evaluated the elderly population in Britain suggests that social isolation may cause premature death.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and found that, mental and physical health ailments aside, decreased social activity eventually led to premature death in the 6,500 men and women who were monitored for seven years.

"They're dying of the usual causes, but isolation has a strong influence," said Andrew Steptoe, the study's lead author and epidemiologist at University College London.

Researchers also took into consideration the feeling of loneliness but found that once demographic and health factors were taken out of the equation, it was not as much of a factor as social isolation.

But with the nuances between loneliness and social isolation aside, the study revealed that social interaction is important when it comes to longevity among the elderly community.

The debate over the difference between loneliness and isolation has been on obstacle for studies like this one because loneliness is more subjective, while social isolation can be evaluated based on the number of friends and family members an individual remains in contact with.

Previous studies have demonstrated that loneliness is associated with a multitude of ailments that can eventually lead to a higher risk for death.

"Unfortunately in our study, we can't tell which comes first," Steptoe said.

"We did know that lonely people did have more illnesses."

But director of the National Institute on Aging's division of behavioral and social research Richard Suzman said that the issue of loneliness and isolation "should get lots of attention because they may be as important, as joint factors, as smoking."

"It may be that loneliness and ill health are much more entangled. The question is, does loneliness lead to ill health or is that when you get ill you get more lonlely-you don't get out, or people don't visit at much," he said.

Suzman also said that a study that incorporated actual interventions would weed out the varying degrees that exist between loneliness and isolation.

"Isolation wins out this time," he said. "But I'd want an experiment to verity that."


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