A lonely man at his own birthday party

Researchers Say Loneliness Ages You More Than Smoking and Now I'm Rethinking My Introverted Existence.

Every few years, something comes along that scientists dub “the new smoking.”

When sitting threatened to kill you faster than a pack-a-day Marlboro habit, every magazine editor (see: me, circa 2009) extolled the virtues of ditching your Barca lounger for a standing desk.

Then researchers decided that scrolling endlessly on our phones was the thing that was going to send us all to early graves.

Now, they say spending too much time alone speeds up aging faster than you can say Joe Camel. 

As someone who spends far too much time horizontal, reading Reddit on my own, well, I guess I better start writing my will.


According to a new article in Aging-US, feeling lonely, unhappy, or hopeless can add up to 1.65 years to your biological age—a measure of how old you seem (versus the number of years you’ve spent blowing out birthday candles.)

Smoking tacks on just 1.25 years. Restless sleep adds 0.44 years.

To get to this finding, a group of U.S. and Chinese scientists poured over data from nearly 12,000 Chinese adults, including 16 blood biomarkers like cholesterol and glucose levels, as well as other health stats like blood pressure, body mass index, lung function, and sex.

“Mental and psychosocial states are some of the most robust predictors of health outcomes—and quality of life—yet they have largely been omitted from modern healthcare,” says corresponding author Manuel Faria, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, in a media release.

The news that feeling sad and alone is deadly is especially worrying right now, given loneliness is soaring.

In a recent talk at the Yale University School of Management, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy pointed to a survey that revealed 60 percent of Americans struggle with loneliness. That number climbs to 75 percent among younger people. 

And it was from 2018-2019, a full year before the pandemic left many people isolated.


The Takeaway

Like many health-minded folks, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking the best way to spend more time on this spinning orb is to be proactive about my physical health.

I’ve seen alcoholism and inactivity kill family members I’d like to have spent more time with so I try to drink fewer dirty martinis, push through another set of bench presses, and get enough sleep. I never miss a checkup and when a recent mammogram showed a troubling spot, I had it biopsied (it was fine).

But taking care of my mental health—I meditate and am a big fan of therapy—has always felt like something I do to help deal with the now (it’s called being present after all), not the future.

This research? It’s making me rethink that. 

If spending more time with friends and family means I get to hang out with them for more years, sign me up.