People should try to visit friends and family at least once a month to stop them feeling lonely and reduce their risk of premature death, a new study suggests.
It comes as researchers found that people who never or rarely have the company of their nearest and dearest are more likely to die.
Even those who live with someone else can be at risk if they are visited infrequently, academics said.
Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of dying prematurely in a number of previous studies, but academics said they wanted to explore how different social interactions can impact a person’s risk.
Academics from the University of Glasgow drew on data from the UK Biobank study – a long-term study tracking the health and genetics of almost half a million adults from around the UK.
They looked at five different types of social interaction reported by 458,146 people with an average age of 57 at the start of the study and then tracked them for an average of 12.6 years.
During the follow up period, 33,135 people died, including 5,112 cardiovascular disease deaths.
The research team then used this data to compare it to five measures of social interaction including people’s self-reported ability to confide in someone close, whether or not they “often” felt lonely.
People involved in the study also reported frequency of friends and or family visits, whether or not they participated in weekly group activities, and whether or not they lived alone.
The study, 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 during the follow up period.
Those who were never visited by friends or family were at a 39% increased risk of death compared to those who were visited daily, the authors found.
They said that people who received friend or family visits on at least a monthly basis had a significantly lower risk of dying, suggesting that there was potentially 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.
“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,” said study co-author Jason Gill, professor of cardiometabolic health at the University of Glasgow.
He added: “Ensuring that you visit your lonely and isolated relatives is 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 also appeared to need monthly visits from loved ones.
“There was still a risk associated of infrequent friends and family visits even among those not living alone,” said lead author Dr Hamish Foster, a clinical research fellow in general practice and primary care at the University of Glasgow.
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.
Those who lived alone were also more likely to have died during the follow up period.
Dr Foster added: “We examined two different types of loneliness and three different types of social isolation in our study, and we found that each of these were associated with a higher risk of dying.”
He said that the study did not look at the mechanisms behind the finding but previous work has looked at social connection and people’s immune system and health behaviours, adding: “It could be that people who are more socially isolated may have some more unhealthy behaviours like smoking or high alcohol intake, for example.”
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.
The findings could also potentially lead to more effective ways to combat the increased risk of death associated with social isolation.
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.
“We all need that kind of support sometimes, especially now with the NHS under such pressure that some persistence from patients is often required, but sadly if you are isolated and alone then it won’t be available to you.”
Published: by Radio NewsHub