January 16, 2024
SEOUL – Middle-aged men accounted for more than 85 percent of so-called “lonely deaths” in South Korea, while it took an average of more than three weeks for the bodies to be discovered, a study showed Monday.
The Act on the Prevention and Management of Lonely Deaths defines the term as one in which a person dies alone after falling out of contact with friends or family, with his or her body remaining undiscovered for at least three days. The phenomenon is also referred to as a “solitary” or “unattended death.”
Out of a sample of 128 such deaths between 2017 and 2021, 108 were men, while 20 were women, according to a study on the characteristics of lonely deaths in South Korea. The study was based on forensic autopsy data examined by Na Joo-young, a professor of forensic medicine at Pusan National University.
The findings were based on 664 forensic autopsies conducted by the professor from 2017 to 2021, the same period during which the Ministry of Health and Welfare conducted its first-ever official study on lonely deaths.
By age, individuals in their 50s accounted for 51 cases (40 percent), those in their 60s accounted for 30 cases, and those in their 40s accounted for 28 cases. Individuals in their 20s and 30s accounted for the smallest share of the total, with eight cases.
The report also suggested that changes in traditional family structures, such as higher rates of divorce and estrangement, are associated with an increased risk of lonely death, as half of those who died and remained undiscovered were either divorced or separated from their spouses.
It took an average of 26.6 days to find the body in cases of lonely deaths, according to the study.
The deaths were often reported by a landlord when a tenant was behind on their rent or no longer responding to their attempts to make contact, or they were reported by a building manager or a neighbor. In these cases, it took an average of 29.7 days to discover the bodies.
Moreover, the study found that 63 percent of the bodies had an average blood alcohol content of 0.074 percent — nearly two times the level that constitutes drunk driving in South Korea, which is 0.03 percent under the current law,
South Korea has seen a stark increase in the number of people dying alone over the past five years from 2,412 in 2017 to 3,378 in 2022. In 2018, the figure stood at 3,048, slipped to 2,949 in 2019, but bounced back to 3,279 in 2020 and 3,378 in 2021.
To tackle the problem of middle-aged and isolated people dying alone each year, the government rolled out a scheme in May 2023 to annually survey people at risk of dying alone and vulnerable groups, as well as provide them with health, employment and medical care that tailors to the needs of each demographic.
In line with the government’s efforts, the study also echoed the need for an integrated social approach to address lonely deaths and alcohol disorders, as well as suggesting coming up with specified timeframes to define the term “lonely death.”
If you’re thinking about self-harm or suicide, contact the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s helpline 1393, available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.