Loneliness and social isolation are poised to become a public health threat with greater scope and more devastating effects that more widely debated issues such as obesity, the results of two meta-studies show.

Piano player.

Image credits Robert Pastryk.

More Americans are living alone than ever before. Declining rates of marriage, coupled with higher chances for divorce and a general drop in the number of children all play a part. Which doesn’t really sound like a problem — I mean hey, I’m a pretty self-sufficient guy and some of you reading this probably are so, too. But consider that humans are social animals. The need for others is hard-wired into us, a drive to belong, to be part of the social group. Taking a day or a few off to disconnect and relax is one thing. Struggling to cope in the absence of a social support network is a very different matter.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both well-being and survival,” says Brigham Young University psychologist and first author of the paper, Julianne Holt-Lunstad.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators.”

This weekend, Holt-Lunstad attended the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association where she presented the results of two large-scale meta-analyses peering into the relationship between loneliness and premature mortality. The data for these meta-studies have been gathered over the past several decades. The first, published back in 2010, looked at 148 studies (totaling 308,849 participants) and looked into issues such as health status, social relationships, pre-existing conditions and causes of mortality.

From this data, Holt-Lundstad and her colleagues were able to quantify a life expectancy difference between socially isolated people and individuals with more robust social relationships. The latter, their data shows, were 50% more likely to live for longer than their more isolated counterparts — showing just how crucial our social lives can be for our life expectancy. The effect “is comparable with quitting smoking and it exceeds many well-known risk factors for mortality (e.g., obesity, physical inactivity),” the paper reads.

In the second meta-study, which worked with papers from 1980 to 2014, Holt-Lunstad and her team delved deeper into the relationship between loneliness, social isolation, living alone, and death rates. Their results — based on over 3.4 million people from Europe, Asia, North America, and Australia — showed that all three factors corresponded to an increased likelihood of mortality of between 26% to 32% percent.

All of this doesn’t tie in favorably with present conditions at all.

“Affluent nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone since census data collection began and also likely have the highest rates in human history, with those rates projected to increase,” the researchers write.

“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase,” says Holt-Lunstad. “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.”

Over a quarter of Americans were living alone in 2014 according to a Pew Research Centre report — and that percentage has likely only increased up to today. This trend is rapidly taking hold in other developed and developing countries, such as the UK or India. That’s why Holt-Lunstad believes we need to work together and address the looming public health threat of loneliness. Possible solutions would be teaching social skills in school or adding social ‘health’ on doctors’ check-up list.

But in the meantime, we should all take care to nurture the relationships we do have and to try to improve their quality by building intimacy with those around us. So when you’re feeling lonely, give your friends or family a call. Go out for a drink, or just to hang out. It will make you live longer and better.

The research was presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, and can be read here and here.

 

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