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Depression

How Living Alone Increases the Risk of Depression

A major study raises concerns, and urgency.

Key points

  • Due to a variety of factors—the most recent being the COVID-19 pandemic—more people are socially isolated and living alone.
  • New research shows that living alone, compared to living with others, increases the risk of depression by 42 percent.
  • Effective and available psychological, pharmacological, and self-help interventions can reduce loneliness, social isolation, and depression.
Pexels/Pixabay
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Published in the August issue of Frontiers in Psychiatry, a recent study by Wu and colleagues suggests that living alone is associated with a higher risk of depression.

Before discussing the research, let's explore a bit of the psychology of loneliness.

The Psychology of Loneliness

We are in the middle of what has been termed a "loneliness epidemic." The COVID-19 pandemic, though not the sole cause, has certainly contributed to this.

Loneliness refers to a discrepancy between desired and achieved relationships. There are two types of loneliness:

  • Social (e.g., failing to make friends).
  • Emotional (failing to have satisfying intimate relationships).

Loneliness is associated with a number of tendencies and behaviors, including maladaptive emotion regulation strategies, greater social media use, stronger fear of missing out, overspending, and materialism.

Research shows loneliness is associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes; for example, it is a risk factor for depression, increases pain sensitivity, and has been linked to premature death.

Feelings of Loneliness, Living Alone, and Depression

Does loneliness correlate with living arrangements—specifically, with living by oneself?

Of course, due to COVID-19 infection and/or social distancing measures (e.g., lockdowns), many of us have had to temporarily live alone or apart from people we care about—such as a romantic partner, family, or friends. But more generally, living alone has been slowly becoming a new norm.

Indeed, these days there are a greater number of single-person households than there used to be. Whether due to never having married, separation, divorce, or widowhood, nearly 1 in 3 people residing in Western countries live by themselves.

Like feelings of loneliness, physical social isolation may be a risk factor for many conditions related to physical health (e.g., cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, premature mortality) and mental health, particularly depression.

Despite all of the research on the subject, few longitudinal studies have explored loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for depression, which is why Wu et al. relied on data from longitudinal studies to explore this relationship, as summarized below.

Investigating the Relationship Between Living Alone and Depression

Sample: A systematic search of Embase, Pubmed, and Cochrane databases (up to May 2022) found 2,056 studies. Of 239 full-text articles screened, seven were included in the meta-analysis. In terms of demographics, there were 123,859 participants (without a history of psychosis); 65 percent were female.

Analysis of data showed that “living alone was associated with a higher risk of depression than not living alone (OR 1.42, 95% CI 1.19– 1.70).” In terms of demographics, analysis of data indicated that living alone increases the risk of developing depression more for men than women, older than younger, and rural than urban people.

A number of previous meta-analyses had also concluded that living alone is a risk factor for depression; however, they had used only cross-sectional studies. The present analysis, instead, used data from longitudinal studies. Yet, the results were similar. Specifically, it appears that living alone increased the risk of depressive disorders by 42 percent.

Pexels/Pixabay
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

Why is Social Isolation Linked With Depression?

An important question is why living on one’s own increases the risk of depression.

There are a variety of potential explanations: Those who live alone, compared to those living with others, may be in a worse financial situation, have less social contact and social support, be in poorer physical or mental health, or have worse health habits.

The relationship between living alone and depression may be quite complex. For example, research suggests patients with a history of—or with current—serious diseases and disabling conditions (e.g., chronic pain) are more likely to become isolated and eventually develop depression. But depression itself is also likely to lead to or worsen patients’ quality of life and increase social isolation and feelings of loneliness.

Takeaway

The present research used data from nearly 124,000 individuals to investigate the link between living arrangements and mood disorders. It concluded that living alone, compared to living with others, increases the risk of depression by 42 percent.

This is concerning because depression lowers the quality of life, is a leading cause of disability, and has been linked, according to the authors’ review of previous research, to the “incidence of cardiovascular illness, stroke, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, asthma, arthritis, disability, suicide, and self-harm.”

The good news is that there are effective psychological interventions and pharmacological treatments for depression, with new therapies (e.g., Botox injections, IV ketamine, magic mushrooms) currently being investigated.

As for reducing loneliness and isolation, there exist a variety of interventions—from mindfulness to robotic pets. Self-help approaches, such as developing a sense of purpose in life or adopting a pet, may also protect against loneliness and depression.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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