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A lot of research has found that people who feel lonely don't live as long. But a new study in the U.K. suggests that whether you feel lonely is less important than how much contact you have with friends and family. NPR's Jon Hamilton reports that the finding came as a surprise, even to the researchers who did the study.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Loneliness and social isolation are two different things. Some people have very little human contact and like it that way. Others see people regularly but still feel lonely. Previous studies have found that both loneliness and social isolation are linked to a higher risk of health problems and a shorter life. So Andrew Steptoe, a researcher at University College London, suspected that a combination of the two would be especially dangerous.

ANDREW STEPTOE: We were thinking that people who were socially isolated but also felt lonely might be at particularly high risk.

HAMILTON: To find out, Steptoe led a team that studied 6,500 men and women age 52 and older. All of them had answered a questionnaire back in 2004-2005 that assessed both their sense of loneliness and how much contact they had with friends and family. The researchers looked to see what happened to those people over the next seven or eight years. And Steptoe says he was surprised by the result.

STEPTOE: Both social isolation and loneliness appeared initially to be associated with a greater risk of dying. But it was really the isolation which was more important.

HAMILTON: Steptoe says at first it looked like people who reported greater levels of loneliness were more likely to die. But it turned out they were also more likely to be poor and to have health problems. Once those sorts of factors were taken into account, the extra risk pretty much disappeared.

Isolation, on the other hand, increased a person's risk of dying regardless of income or health status. Steptoe says the finding, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that there are at least two reasons to stay socially connected.

STEPTOE: One is to do with a feeling of people around you with whom you can confide, who are close to you, and that might be somewhat linked with loneliness.

HAMILTON: So you'll presumably be happier, but you won't necessarily live longer. But Steptoe says whether or not you feel lonely, having friends and family around can offer practical benefits.

STEPTOE: It could be people being advised to go and see a doctor if they have some symptoms; it could be support in terms of having healthier lifestyles, or it could even be quite basic things such as somebody developing serious symptoms of illness and not having anyone there to help them.

HAMILTON: The finding that loneliness doesn't affect health also came as a surprise to other researchers in the field. Bert Uchino from the University of Utah says he's not convinced by the new study - at least not yet.

BERT UCHINO: It doesn't negate the loneliness work that's been done to date. I think it does raise the dialogue, however, in terms of why the differences are occurring.

HAMILTON: Uchino and others say there may be cultural differences between America and Great Britain that explain why studies of Americans have reached a different conclusion. He says another possibility is that in the Internet age, people's perceptions of loneliness and isolation may be changing.

UCHINO: People may feel connected, may think that they're connected to other people because they are on Facebook or some of these other sites, but of course that doesn't mean that the quality of that relationship is being nurtured as well.

HAMILTON: Uchino says evolution seems to have programmed us to need direct human contact, not just cyber-friends. And he says there are lots of things people can do to reduce both loneliness and isolation.

UCHINO: Have lunch with somebody. Take a walk. Give them a phone call. I think those are all important ways that we need to stay connected with our relationships, and I think in the long term it can help us.

HAMILTON: Uchino says those efforts to connect are especially important as we get older. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

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