Becoming a dad is lonely. With a new life in your hands, spending time with friends can fall to the wayside. But loneliness is more than just a bad feeling. Social isolation has been linked to a range of health issues, including heart disease, dementia, and premature death. Now, there’s a new one to add to the list: Middle-aged men who are lonely are 10 percent more likely to develop cancer, according to a new study.
Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, and it’s the first in some high-income countries. Most cancer cases, a whopping 90-95 percent, can be traced back not to genetics but to environmental conditions and lifestyle choices. Chief among those lifestyle factors that lead to cancer are alcohol use, smoking, obesity, an unbalanced diet, and a lack of exercise. But loneliness and social isolation also play a role, as new research is increasingly showing.
Researchers from Finland and Norway assessed more than 2,500 Finnish men for loneliness, which is a subjective feeling, and social isolation, which is a lack of a social network. They assessed the men when they were in their early 40s and followed them for about 20 years. By the end of this time period, 25 percent of the men had developed cancer, and 11 percent had died from it.
After adjusting for factors such as lifestyle, diet, and depression, men who were lonely or socially isolated were 10 percent more likely to be diagnosed with any type of cancer. Lonely men were more likely to get cancer no matter the size of their social network, showing that having friends isn’t enough to cure lonely feelings. Loneliness was also linked to a higher risk of lung cancer specifically.
“It has been estimated, on the basis of studies carried out in recent years, that loneliness could be as significant a health risk as smoking or [being] overweight,” researcher Siiri-Liisi Kraav from the University of Eastern Finland said in a press release.
One theory behind the loneliness and cancer connection is that loneliness could increase inflammation, which is a risk factor for certain types of cancer. However, the researchers adjusted their results for inflammation, and the results still held, suggesting that something else is at play here too.
Of the men who developed cancer, married men were likely to have a longer survival time compared to single men. One possible explanation is that married people are more likely to catch their cancer at an earlier stage. So don’t be shy; ask your wife to keep an eye out for any unusual lumps on your body.