Study Says Friends Extend Lives. Do Virtual Ones, Too?
According to a new analysis of 148 studies from around the world, loneliness can be even more harmful to your health than smoking or obesity. The data show that people with high levels of social interaction were 50 percent more likely to be alive by the time of the study follow-up (usually about 7.5 years).
That means the mortality risk for their less social peers is roughly equivalent to smoking about 15 cigarettes a day, or being an alcoholic, researchers say.
The analysis, led by a team at Brigham Young University and published in PLoS Medicine, drew on studies that were conducted as early as 1979 and examined a total of more than 300,000 men and women worldwide. Though the studies used a variety of measures to determine levels of social interaction, they had one key thing in common: "They were all significantly related to mortality," lead researcher Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad told AOL News.
However, most of the studies were done before the advent of social networking, which has rapidly changed our notion of what it means to be social. Researchers say they have yet to explore the degree to which online interactions might provide the same health benefits as real-life ones.
For her part, Holt-Lunstad doubts that virtual connections could take the place of the ones examined in the studies. She said some of the biggest health advantages came from both intense, intimate relationships and broad-reaching support networks -- which she doesn't believe are replicated online.
Michael J. Bugeja, author of "Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age," agrees that social networks can't substitute for face-to-face interaction, but he says that for people who already have healthy real-world relationships, technology can help amplify them.
For those already prone to isolation, however, technology may encourage them to further retreat from society -- and possibly tweet themselves into an early grave.
"If we try to substitute technological content for the interpersonal, we run into a whole host of problems. You see that on college campuses with increasing psychological stress rates," Bugeja told AOL News. "But I do think our interpersonal relationships are refreshed because we network socially. There's a healthy balance there somewhere."