Social Relationships and Mortality Risk

by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, & J. Bradley Layton
published July 27, 2010, PLOS Medicine,

Editors’ Summary

Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likwise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, across the Atlantic, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated.
Why Was This Study Done?
Some experts think that social isolation is bad for human health. They point to a 1988 review of five prospective studies (investigations in which the characteristics of a population are determined and then the population is followed to see whether any of these characteristics are associated with specific outcomes) that showed that people with fewer social relationships die earlier on average than those with more social relationships. But, even though many prospective studies of mortality (death) have included measures of social relationships since that first review, the idea that a lack of social relationships is a risk factor for death is still not widely recognized by health organizations and the public. In this study, therefore, the researchers undertake a systematic review and meta-analysis of the relevant literature to determine the extent to which social relationships influence mortality risk and which aspects of social relationships are most predictive of mortality. A systematic review uses predefined criteria to identify all the research on a given topic; a meta-analysis uses statistical methods to combine the results of several studies.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers identified 148 prospective studies that provided data on individuals’ mortality as a function of social relationships and extracted an “effect size” from each study. An effect size quantifies the size of a difference between two groups—here, the difference in the likelihood of death between groups that differ in terms of their social relationships. The researchers then used a statistical method called “random effects modeling” to calculate the average effect size of the studies expressed as an odds ratio (OR)—the ratio of the chances of an event happening in one group to the chances of the same event happening in the second group. They report that the average OR was 1.5. That is, people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. Put another way, an OR of 1.5 means that by the time half of a hypothetical sample of 100 people has died, there will be five more people alive with stronger social relationships than people with weaker social relationships. Importantly, the researchers also report that social relationships were more predictive of the risk of death in studies that considered complex measurements of social integration than in studies that considered simple evaluations such as marital status.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement. Although further research is needed to determine exactly how social relationships can be used to reduce mortality risk, physicians, health professionals, educators, and the media should now acknowledge that social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults and should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality, the researchers conclude.


“Social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity.”

House, Landis, and Umberson; Science 1988 [1]

Two decades ago a causal association between social relationships and mortality was proposed after a review of five large prospective studies concluded that social relationships predict mortality [1]. Following the publication of this provocative review, the number of prospective studies of mortality that included measures of social relationships increased exponentially. Although the inverse association between social relationships and nonsuicide mortality has received increased attention in research, neither major health organizations nor the general public recognize it as a risk factor for mortality. This may be due in part to the fact that the literature has become unwieldy, with wide variation in how social relationships are measured across a large number of studies and disappointing clinical trials [2]. “Social relationships” has perhaps become viewed as a fuzzy variable, lacking the level of precision and control that is preferred in biomedical research. Thus, the large corpus of relevant empirical research is in need of synthesis and refinement.Current evidence also indicates that the quantity and/or quality of social relationships in industrialized societies are decreasing. For instance, trends reveal reduced intergenerational living, greater social mobility, delayed marriage, dual-career families, increased single-residence households, and increased age-related disabilities [3],[4]. More specifically, over the last two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who report having no confidant—now the modal response [3]. Such findings suggest that despite increases in technology and globalization that would presumably foster social connections, people are becoming increasingly more socially isolated. Given these trends, understanding the nature and extent of the association between social relationships and mortality is of increased temporal importance.

There are two general theoretical models that propose processes through which social relationships may influence health: the stress buffering and main effects models [5]. The buffering hypothesis suggests that social relationships may provide resources (informational, emotional, or tangible) that promote adaptive behavioral or neuroendocrine responses to acute or chronic stressors (e.g., illness, life events, life transitions). The aid from social relationships thereby moderates or buffers the deleterious influence of stressors on health. From this perspective, the term social support is used to refer to the real or perceived availability of social resources [6]. The main effects model proposes that social relationships may be associated with protective health effects through more direct means, such as cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and biological influences that are not explicitly intended as help or support. For instance, social relationships may directly encourage or indirectly model healthy behaviors; thus, being part of a social network is typically associated with conformity to social norms relevant to health and self-care. In addition, being part of a social network gives individuals meaningful roles that provide self-esteem and purpose to life [7],[8].

Social relationships have been defined and measured in diverse ways across studies. Despite striking differences, three major components of social relationships are consistently evaluated [5]: (a) the degree of integration in social networks [9], (b) the social interactions that are intended to be supportive (i.e., received social support), and (c) the beliefs and perceptions of support availability held by the individual (i.e., perceived social support). The first subconstruct represents the structural aspects of social relationships and the latter two represent the functional aspects. Notably, these different subconstructs are only moderately intercorrelated, typically ranging between r = 0.20 and 0.30 [9],[10]. While all three components have been shown to be associated with morbidity and mortality, it is thought that each may influence health in different ways [11],[12]. Because it is presently unclear whether any single aspect of social relationships is more predictive than others, synthesis of data across studies using several types of measures of social relationships would allow for essential comparisons that have not been conducted on such a large scale.

Empirical data suggest the medical relevance of social relationships in improving patient care [13], increasing compliance with medical regimens [13], and promoting decreased length of hospitalization [14],[15]. Likewise, social relationships have been linked to the development [16],[17] and progression [18][21] of cardiovascular disease [22]—a leading cause of death globally. Therefore, synthesis of the current empirical evidence linking social relationships and mortality, along with clarifications of potential moderators, may be particularly relevant to public health and clinical practice for informing interventions and policies aimed at reducing risk for mortality.

To address these issues, we conducted a meta-analysis of the literature investigating the association between social relationships and mortality. Specifically, we addressed the following questions: What is the overall magnitude of the association between social relationships and mortality across research studies? Do structural versus functional aspects of social relationships differentially impact the risk for mortality? Is the association moderated by participant characteristics (age, gender, health status, cause of mortality) or by study characteristics (length of clinical follow-up, inclusion of statistical controls)? Is the influence of social relationships on mortality a gradient or threshold effect.


Cumulative empirical evidence across 148 independent studies indicates that individuals’ experiences within social relationships significantly predict mortality. The overall effect size corresponds with a 50% increase in odds of survival as a function of social relationships. Multidimensional assessments of social integration yielded an even stronger association: a 91% increase in odds of survival. Thus, the magnitude of these findings may be considered quite large, rivaling that of well-established risk factors (Figure 6). Results also remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow-up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be generalized.

Comparison of odds (lnOR) of decreased mortality across several conditions associated with mortality.

The magnitude of risk reduction varied depending on the type of measurement of social relationships (see Table 4). Social relationships were most highly predictive of reduced risk of mortality in studies that included multidimensional assessments of social integration. Because these studies included more than one type of social relationship measurement (e.g., network based inventories, marital status, etc.), such a measurement approach may better represent the multiple pathways (described earlier) by which social relationships influence health and mortality [182]. Conversely, binary evaluations of living alone (yes/no) were the least predictive of mortality status. The reliability and validity of measurement likely explains this finding, and researchers are encouraged to use psychometrically sound measures of social relationships (e.g., Table 2). For instance, while researchers may be tempted to use a simple single-item such as “living alone” as a proxy for social isolation, it is possible for one to live alone but have a large supportive social network and thus not adequately capture social isolation. We also found that social isolation had a similar influence on likelihood of mortality compared with other measures of social relationships. This evidence qualifies the notion of a threshold effect (lack of social relationships is the only detrimental condition); rather, the association appears robust across a variety of types of measures of social relationships.

This meta-analysis also provides evidence to support the directional influence of social relationships on mortality. Most of the studies (60%) involved community cohorts, most of whom would not be experiencing life-threatening conditions at the point of initial evaluation. Moreover, initial health status did not moderate the effect of social relationships on mortality. Although illness may result in poorer or more restricted social relationships (social isolation resulting from physical confinement), such that individuals closer to death may have decreased social support compared to healthy individuals, the findings from these studies indicate that general community samples with strong social relationships are likely to remain alive longer than similar individuals with poor social relations. However, causality is not easily established. One cannot randomly assign human participants to be socially isolated, married, or in a poor-quality relationship. A similar dilemma characterizes virtually all lifestyle risk factors for mortality: for instance, one cannot randomly assign individuals to be smokers or nonsmokers. Despite such challenges, “smoking represents the most extensively documented cause of disease ever investigated in the history of biomedical research” [183]. The link between social relationships and mortality is currently much less understood than other risk factors; nonetheless there is substantial experimental, cross-sectional, and prospective evidence linking social relationships with multiple pathways associated with mortality (see [182] for review). Existing models for reducing risk of mortality may be substantially strengthened by including social relationship factors.

Notably, the overall effect for social relationships on mortality reported here may be a conservative estimate. Many studies included in the meta-analysis utilized single item measures of social relations, yet the magnitude of the association was greatest among those studies utilizing complex assessments. Moreover, because many studies statistically adjusted for standard risk factors, the effect may be underestimated, since some of the impact of social relationships on mortality may be mediated through such factors (e.g., behavior, diet, exercise). Additionally, most measures of social relations did not take into account the quality of the social relationships, thereby assuming that all relationships are positive. However, research suggests this is not the case, with negative social relationships linked to greater risk of mortality [184],[185]. For instance, marital status is widely used as a measure of social integration; however, a growing literature documents its divergent effects based on level of marital quality [186],[187]. Thus the effect of positive social relationships on risk of mortality may actually be much larger than reported in this meta-analysis, given the failure to account for negative or detrimental social relationships within the measures utilized across studies.Other possible limitations of this review should be acknowledged. Statistical controls (e.g., age, sex, physical condition, etc.) employed by many of the studies rule out a number of potentially confounding variables that might account for the association between social relationships and mortality. However, studies used an inconsistent variety of controlling variables, and some reports involved raw data (Table 1). Although effect size magnitude was diminished by the inclusion of statistical controls only within the data obtained by measures of structural social relationships (but not functional or combined measures), future research can better specify which variables are most likely to impact the overall association. It must also be acknowledged that existing data primarily represent research conducted in North America and Western Europe. Although we found no differences across world region, future reviews inclusive of research written in all languages (not only English) with participants better representing other world regions may yield better estimates across populations.

Approximately two decades after the review by House and colleagues [1], a generation of empirical research validates their initial premise: Social relationships exert an independent influence on risk for mortality comparable with well established risk factors for mortality (Figure 6). Although limited by the state of current investigations and possible omission of pertinent reports, this meta-analysis provides empirical evidence (nearly 30 times the number of studies previously reported) to support the criteria for considering insufficient social relationships a risk factor of mortality (i.e., strength and consistency of association across a wide range of studies, temporal ordering, and gradient of response) [188]. The magnitude of the association between social relationships and mortality has now been established, and this meta-analysis provides much-needed clarification regarding the social relationship factor(s) most predictive of mortality. Future research can shift to more nuanced questions aimed at (a) understanding the causal pathways by which social participation promotes health, (b) refining conceptual models, and (c) developing effective intervention and prevention models that explicitly account for social relations.

Some steps have already been taken identifying the psychological, behavioral, and physiological pathways linking social relationships to health [5],[182],[189]. Social relationships are linked to better health practices and to psychological processes, such as stress and depression, that influence health outcomes in their own right [190]; however, the influence of social relationships on health cannot be completely explained by these processes, as social relationships exert an independent effect. Reviews of such findings suggest that there are multiple biologic pathways involved (physiologic regulatory mechanisms, themselves intertwined) that in turn influence a number of disease endpoints [182],[191][193]. For instance, a number of studies indicate that social support is linked to better immune functioning [194][197] and to immune-mediated inflammatory processes [198]. Thus interdisciplinary work and perspective will be important in future studies given the complexity of the phenomenon.

Perhaps the most important challenge posed by these findings is how to effectively utilize social relationships to reduce mortality risk. Preliminary investigations have demonstrated some risk reduction through formalized social interventions [199]. While the evidence is mixed [2],[6], it should be noted that most social support interventions evaluated in the literature thus far are based on support provided from strangers; in contrast, evidence provided in this meta-analysis is based almost entirely on naturally occurring social relationships. Moreover, our analyses suggest that received support is less predictive of mortality than social integration (Table 4). Therefore, facilitating patient use of naturally occurring social relations and community-based interventions may be more successful than providing social support through hired personnel, except in cases in which patient social relations appear to be detrimental or absent. Multifaceted community-based interventions may have a number of advantages because such interventions are socially grounded and include a broad cross-section of the public. Public policy initiatives need not be limited to those deemed “high risk” or those who have already developed a health condition but could potentially include low- and moderate-risk individuals earlier in the risk trajectory [200]. Overall, given the significant increase in rate of survival (not to mention quality of life factors), the results of this meta-analysis are sufficiently compelling to promote further research aimed at designing and evaluating interventions that explicitly account for social relationship factors across levels of health care (prevention, evaluation, treatment compliance, rehabilitation, etc.).


Data across 308,849 individuals, followed for an average of 7.5 years, indicate that individuals with adequate social relationships have a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. The magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity). These findings also reveal significant variability in the predictive utility of social relationship variables, with multidimensional assessments of social integration being optimal when assessing an individual’s risk for mortality and evidence that social isolation has a similar influence on mortality to other measures of social relationships. The overall effect remained consistent across a number of factors, including age, sex, initial health status, follow-up period, and cause of death, suggesting that the association between social relationships and mortality may be general, and efforts to reduce risk should not be isolated to subgroups such as the elderly.

To draw a parallel, many decades ago high mortality rates were observed among infants in custodial care (i.e., orphanages), even when controlling for preexisting health conditions and medical treatment [201][204]. Lack of human contact predicted mortality. The medical profession was stunned to learn that infants would die without social interaction. This single finding, so simplistic in hindsight, was responsible for changes in practice and policy that markedly decreased mortality rates in custodial care settings. Contemporary medicine could similarly benefit from acknowledging the data: Social relationships influence the health outcomes of adults.

Physicians, health professionals, educators, and the public media take risk factors such as smoking, diet, and exercise seriously; the data presented here make a compelling case for social relationship factors to be added to that list. With such recognition, medical evaluations and screenings could routinely include variables of social well-being; medical care could recommend if not outright promote enhanced social connections; hospitals and clinics could involve patient support networks in implementing and monitoring treatment regimens and compliance, etc. Health care policies and public health initiatives could likewise benefit from explicitly accounting for social factors in efforts aimed at reducing mortality risk. Individuals do not exist in isolation; social factors influence individuals’ health though cognitive, affective, and behavioral pathways. Efforts to reduce mortality via social relationship factors will require innovation, yet innovation already characterizes many medical interventions that extend life at the expense of quality of life. Social relationship–based interventions represent a major opportunity to enhance not only the quality of life but also survival.

Link to References