Loneliness: A Medical Problem?

“Loneliness is a major contributor to premature death in this country,” asserted Dr. James J. Lynch, professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, speaking at a BYU forum in October 1979.

Author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness (1977), Dr. Lynch, not a member of the Church, found that heart rhythms of hospital patients improved dramatically when a nurse simply touched a patient to take his pulse—even when the patient was comatose and dying.

He presented data from the 1960 United States census which show that “at every age for both sexes and all races, people who live alone—the single, the divorced, and the widowed—suffer death from every major cause at two to ten times the rate of married people.” The specific statistics suggesting that living alone may be more hazardous follow:

  • —Seventeen married people commit suicide for every ninety-two widowed and divorced people.

  • —For every eleven married people who die of cirrhosis of the liver, seventy-seven single adults do, a seven-fold increase.

  • —Every four married people who die by homicide are matched by thirty singles.

  • —Three married people die of tuberculosis for every thirty single adults who do, a ten-fold increase.

  • —Six married people die of pneumonia for every forty-two single adults who do, a seven-fold increase.

  • —Two married people die by fire and explosion for every eighteen adults, a nine-fold increase.

  • —Between two and three times as many single people die of heart disease as married people; twice as many single adults as marrieds die of cancer.

The leading causes of premature death in the United States are heart disease, cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, non-car accidents, influenza and pneumonia, vehicle accidents, suicide, and homicide. “All of them are tremendously influenced by social isolation, loneliness, and human fragmentation.”

Considering the tremendous variations in qualities of marriage, differences in divorces, and the individual situations of those who are single, it’s even more surprising that these factors would “leap out” instead of being flattened out by the variation, Dr. Lynch said. Love and the lack of it are generally not considered to be a medical question; yet “there’s hardly a psychiatrist in the United States who won’t tell you that the context for adult functioning is deeply rooted in that person’s childhood.” By 1976 over five million U.S. homes had only one parent, yet “family fragmentation and illegitimacy rates are seen as social problems and possibly psychological problems; nobody sees disruption of family relationships as potentially terminating the life of that child thirty or forty years hence.”

He contrasted Nevada in the 1960s with Utah. Nevada had the highest death rate for people under seventy for every leading cause of death while Utah had one of the lowest. One of the differences is “your own Mormon religion,” not only for its healthful practices of not drinking and not smoking, but also for the “social fabric of the state.” He pointed out that sixty percent of all adult Utahns were born in the state while nine out of ten middle-aged Nevadans were born elsewhere. He also sees the rest of the nation imitating the

Nevadan lifestyle: “uprootedness, high divorce rates, and high mortality rates.”

In his conclusion, he noted his personal belief that “health is rooted in some kind of cohesive force that keeps us together, and historically that has been religion.” Christianity began as a religion of healing, with Christ himself as the great healer. “We have to think about how we evolved away from that tradition, away from love and companionship as life-giving in themselves,” he said.

Fathers—Present and Absent

A study completed in 1975 on the effect of absent fathers on their children turned up an interesting sidelight. The study found that those fathers who were at home had the same effect on their children as those fathers who were gone in the service, dead, or divorced—unless they were interacting with the children. In other words, if a father isn’t talking with his children, working with them, playing with them, listening to them—according to this research, he does not really influence them.

The study (Feldman and Feldman) tested “such variables as level of communication, parenting, homework help, and selection of the father as a significant ‘other’ by his children.” Fathers who interacted extensively with their children made a big difference—a positive difference—in how their children felt about school, their brothers and sisters, their friends, and their parents. (Cited in D. Russell Crane, “Father Absence and Male Sex-Role Development,” Family Perspective, Winter 1978, pp. 35–40.)