About 27 percent of Americans live alone — a historically high percentage that keeps rising.
That’s compared to a full 66 percent of households made up of families, according to a 2013 US Census Report; since 1970, the number of one-person households has risen a full 10 percent.
We all know the obvious dangers of living alone. There’s choking: in a Vice column, one author describes a near-choking incident in which he tried to swallow too much broccoli and it got stuck. He ended up calling 911, and mercifully puking it up just as the fire crew arrived. Technically, he notes, he was never really choking, because he could breathe (though not well), and if he couldn’t — well, he would have been in real trouble.
[Check out our Security Tips For Living Alone.]
And if you’re elderly, there’s a whole host of issues. Grandpa falls and he can’t get up; one woman I knew was on the floor of her bathroom for hours and hours before help arrived to tend to her. The elderly may be prone to malnutrition, as they stop eating because there’s no one to eat with, or misdosing medication, with disastrous results. They become easy prey for unscrupulous relatives, violent criminals, or even scams.
But even if you’re not worried about choking, and you’re not elderly, there’s still plenty to worry about. While plenty of people who live alone retain vibrant connections to family and friends, some, well, don’t. According to a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences, social isolation increases mortality — independently from loneliness. “Socially isolated individuals are at increased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease,” the scientists say, “infectious illness, cognitive deterioration, and mortality. Social isolation also has been associated with elevated blood pressure … and with heightened inflammatory and metabolic responses to stress.”
A 2012 study in Archives of Internal Medicine found similar results: people with hardening of the arteries who lived alone were more likely to die of a heart attack or stroke than those who lived with other people.
And you’re also more likely to be depressed. The BBC reports on a Finnish study that tracked the use of antidepressants in people from 2000-2008. People who lived alone were a staggering 80 percent more likely to use the drugs than those who lived with other people. The BBC says that, “Living alone, the study said, could be linked with feelings of isolation and a lack of social integration and trust, which are risk factors for mental health.”
Living alone is so dangerous, in fact, that researchers in The American Journal of Public Health say it’s as big of a risk factor for mortality as smoking or obesity. Say scientists, “The strength of social isolation as a predictor of mortality is similar to that of well-documented clinical risk factors.” You never knew not wanting to put up with a roommate put you so much at risk.
Making It Better
What to do? Well, we would never presume to weigh in on your living arrangements. That’s your call. But keep in mind that the vast majority of these risks were related to social isolation — not to actually living solo. (We didn’t even touch loneliness here, which had a whole other avalanche of risk unto itself.)
So get out more. Make good friends, and keep them. Date, even casually, if you’re into that sort of thing. Volunteer. Join a civic organization. Do something meaningful to you: basically, make worthwhile, long-term connections with other human beings. Human beings who will, hopefully, check up on you when you don’t show up for an event or a meeting.