Objectives: Social isolation and loneliness have been associated with ill health and are common in the developed world. A clear understanding of their implications for morbidity and mortality is needed to gauge the extent of the associated public health challenge and the potential benefit of intervention.
Study design: A systematic review of systematic reviews (systematic overview) was undertaken to determine the wider consequences of social isolation and loneliness, identify any differences between the two, determine differences from findings of non-systematic reviews and to clarify the direction of causality.
Methods: Eight databases were searched from 1950 to 2016 for English language reviews covering social isolation and loneliness but not solely social support. Suitability for inclusion was determined by two or more reviewers, the methodological quality of included systematic reviews assessed using the a measurement tool to assess systematic reviews (AMSTAR) checklist and the quality of evidence within these reviews using the grading of recommendations, assessment, development and evaluations (GRADE) approach. Non-systematic reviews were sought for a comparison of findings but not included in the primary narrative synthesis.
Results: Forty systematic reviews of mainly observational studies were identified, largely from the developed world. Meta-analyses have identified a significant association between social isolation and loneliness with increased all-cause mortality and social isolation with cardiovascular disease. Narrative systematic reviews suggest associations with poorer mental health outcomes, with less strong evidence for behavioural and other physical health outcomes. No reviews were identified for wider socio-economic or developmental outcomes.
Conclusions: This systematic overview highlights that there is consistent evidence linking social isolation and loneliness to worse cardiovascular and mental health outcomes. The role of social isolation and loneliness in other conditions and their socio-economic consequences is less clear. More research is needed on associations with cancer, health behaviours, and the impact across the life course and wider socio-economic consequences. Policy makers and health and local government commissioners should consider social isolation and loneliness as important upstream factors impacting on morbidity and mortality due to their effects on cardiovascular and mental health. Prevention strategies should therefore be developed across the public and voluntary sectors, using an asset-based approach.
Keywords: Consequences; Loneliness; Public health; Social isolation; Systematic overview.
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