Loneliness may be more hazardous to your health than obesity — and a growing number of Americans are at risk, researchers report.
Around 42.6 million American adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, according to AARP.
“Being connected to others socially is a fundamental human need. It is crucial to both well-being and survival,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Interpersonal relationships have long been held as a key principle in living a healthy and well-balanced life. As part of the CREATION Health wellness philosophy, which was created by the Adventist Health System and used in many of their hospitals, relationships and interacting with others not only increase our happiness but also our ability to heal and stay healthy.
“Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly,” said Holt-Lunstad during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C.
Holt-Lunstad presented results of two large analyses. In one, researchers analyzed 148 studies that included a total of more than 300,000 people. Those studies linked greater social connection to a 50 percent lower risk of early death. The researchers also reviewed 70 studies involving more than 3.4 million people to gauge the impact of social isolation, loneliness and living alone on the risk of premature death.
The conclusion: The effect of the three was equal to or greater than well-known risk factors such as obesity. More than one in four Americans live alone and more than half are unmarried, according to U.S. Census data. Also, that data shows that marriage rates and the number of children per household are declining.
“These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” Holt-Lunstad said. Evidence from these studies suggests that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of early death more than many other factors.
How Can We Help
“With an increasingly aging population, the effect on public health is only going to increase. Many nations around the world suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.'”Holt-Lunstad said. The challenge we face now is what do we do about it.”
Possible solutions, she said, include getting doctors to screen patients for social isolation, and training schoolchildren in social skills. Older people should prepare for retirement socially as well as financially, she added.
“For many, work provides a social outlet that is lost when we retire. It is important to have a plan on how to continue interactions.”
Holt-Lunstad also suggested that community planners include spaces that encourage people to gather together, such as recreation centers and community gardens.