That’s the conclusion of new research published this week in the journal PLOS ONE, which used data from three separate surveys in the United Kingdom over the course of nearly two decades.
“In our study, the prevalence of common mental disorders (CMDs) was higher in individuals living alone than in those not living alone in all survey years. Multivariable regression analyses corroborated this findings, as there was a positive and significant association between living alone and CMDs,” said Louis Jacob, first author of the study and member of the faculty of medicine at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France.
Researchers looked at survey data from the United Kingdom conducted in 1993, 2000, and 2007, which included more than 20,000 adults.
Between 1993 and 2007, the incidence of adults living alone steadily increased from 8.8 to 10.7 percent, correspondingly, so did the rate of common mental disorders from 14.1 to 16.4 percent.
Regardless of age or sex, CMDs were invariably more prevalent in individuals who lived alone.
In some cases, those living alone were more than twice as likely as cohabiting individuals to have a mental disorder.
Other studies have associated living alone with CMDs, but this research builds on that work in several ways.
Prior studies have primarily been interested in the effects of living alone on the elderly, but this research helps to expand findings on the relationship between living alone, loneliness, and mental disorders to the adult population in general. The authors also expanded their research to include other disorders like anxiety rather than depression alone.
The findings are consistent with other work on the subject. For example, a study of nearly 5,000 adults living in Finland found a twofold increase of anxiety and depression in people living alone compared with people who were married.
A 2011 study from Singapore of nearly 3,000 adults age 55 and older found that living alone was a contributor to poorer psychological well-being, with loneliness being the cause.
Loneliness is a complex issue, and its association with living alone and mental disorders has become a topic of increasing interest for public health officials and urban planners.
Some researchers have pointed at cities in general as drivers for loneliness and social isolation. While others have noted our increasingly digital world and the influence of social media on feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.
Many are also taking note of the effects of loneliness as a legitimate public health concern. Beyond mental health and well-being, the effects can also take a physical toll.
A 2015 study in the British Medical Journal found that loneliness and isolation were risk factors for both coronary heart disease and stroke.
Jacob said he hopes giving loneliness and social isolation more visibility will ultimately help to bring relief.
“This is important for the identification of vulnerable populations and the establishment of effective strategies to improve population mental health,” said Jacob.
“Based on the findings of the present study, health professionals should be aware that living alone is a risk factor for CMDs, and that this association is largely mediated by loneliness. We believe that reducing levels of loneliness in people living alone is important,” he said.
Indeed, the most important findings from the research may have more to do with how loneliness can be treated.
According to Jessy Warner-Cohen, PhD, MPH, a health psychologist at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, “The most robust finding of this study is the effect of social support on those living alone.”
“The takeaway message for me from this study is that those not in cohabiting relationships, whether living with a partner or marriage, need to more actively seeks means of developing social support,” said Warner-Cohen, who wasn’t affiliated with the research.
Social support can take on many different forms and affect people from all walks of life.
It can mean joining clubs related to personal interests, like book clubs or athletic organizations, walking dogs with others in the neighborhood, or cooking together. Involving friends and family more frequently is a great resource for social support.
“Look for meet-up groups related to something you enjoy. This will help with meeting other people with similar interests and provide a natural means of developing social support. Fill your life with fun and exciting things,” said Warner-Cohen.