Social isolation, loneliness could be greater threat to public health than obesity, researchers say

August 6, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow, according to research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. "Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly."

Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic , according to AARP's Loneliness Study. In addition, the most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined.

"These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness," said Holt-Lunstad.

To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for , Holt-Lunstad presented data from two meta-analyses. The first involved 148 studies, representing more than 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death. The second study, involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia and Australia, examined the role that social isolation, loneliness or living alone might have on mortality. Researchers found that all three had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death, one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.

"There is robust evidence that and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," said Holt-Lunstad. "With an increasing aging population, the effect on is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."

Holt-Lunstad recommended a greater priority be placed on research and resources to tackle this from the societal to the individual level. For instance, greater emphasis could be placed on social skills training for children in schools and doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening, she said. Additionally, people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, as many social ties are related to the workplace, she noted, adding that community planners should make sure to include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens.

Explore further: Prescription for living longer: Spend less time alone

More information: Session 3328: "Loneliness: A Growing Public Health Threat," Plenary, Saturday, Aug. 5, 3-3:50 p.m. EDT, Room 151A, Street Level, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Pl., N.W., Washington, D.C.

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not rated yet Aug 06, 2017
No matter the current trend, there's a particular part of the population heavily affected by loneliness, but the fact is a complete taboo in the society.
The gender ratio at birth is naturally about 104-107 males per 100 females. With modern medicine and safety, this male surplus is decreasing only slowly as people age, it lasts through all age groups until mid 50s. The result is clear, but widely ignored: several percent of young male population is ostracised, lack all kinds of social contact and support. One would guess that this might have something to do with the gigantic rates of young male suicide.
I have seen a million studies and article about the struggle of old widows, but absolutely nothing about these young "redundant" men.
not rated yet Aug 06, 2017
Third worlders in the West and elsewhere are aborting female children at a rate of 14:! over male children. Just watch what this does in the next 20 years.
Spaced out Engineer
not rated yet Aug 06, 2017
jiridrozd, but females should have a lower mortality rate due to genetic redundancy no?

My problem with loneliness is increased drug use, namely marijuana. Studies show it helps with the pain.

Perhaps all of this is not a health risk if people are over populating the world. At least enough for them to be subjected to electronic mutilation:

We need to use Instagram and to give people options to make friends, rather than just relying on the cesspool that is Facebook. People driven to feel depressed when not noticed when it isn't personal, and then go full blown false story narcissist, rather than just be real people, due to the permanence of every post.

More interconnected, a globalization that results in a shrinking world. Too harsh and too easy to remember the pain of a past that does not wash away as digital content.
not rated yet Aug 06, 2017
A further dimension new in the past 20 years is the larger cohort to which one compares one's self when it comes to popularity, skills or achievement. At the village level, each individual was the best in the village at something and could be recognised for that valuable addition to the society. In the modern world there are so many people better than one's self and we are all left behind in the wake of such a large group, best in the world is so much rarer and any skill we develop is going to struggle to even reach mediocrity in such a big world of people made into a single massive village through social media, and this can have an isolating effect that impacts on loneliness even if a person is socialised to what used to be a normal degree.
not rated yet Aug 07, 2017
The study seems to assume that the association is psychological (not that they put it that way). It may just be that the social connections provide a redundant general health and well being check, ie. as we age we get ill more often, fall more often, etc. and the people around us may notice it happening more often for some than for others and intervene in some way to mitigate these conditions. Some form of in home surveillance AI system with a 'finger' on the 911 button may be able to do the same thing. Not everyone needs people around all the time, it does make it hard to read when the social network wants to talk.
4 / 5 (1) Aug 07, 2017
In the modern world there are so many people better than one's self

This is contributing to loneliness directly, younger people are NOT having sex as much as prior cohorts, it is exceptionally rampant in Japan, and maybe due to porn availability, who can compare with perfect symmetrical breasts and uncommon male members...
1 / 5 (2) Aug 08, 2017
Loneliness is a pheromone deficiency, easily mended by affection.

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