Social isolation, loneliness or living alone have a significant and negative impact on rates of early death. [Photo: Bigstock]

Loneliness could cut your life expectancy

9 August, 2017

Natural Health News — Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow.

“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 isolation 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 US population now experiences isolation regularly.”

Holt-Lunstad noted that in the US alone approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 (7.5% of the total population) are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s Loneliness Study.

In addition, the most recent US 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 at the recent 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

More impactful than obesity

What you need to know

» The global population is both ageing and becoming more socially isolated.

» Being socially isolated is a risk factor for disease and early death comparable to obesity.

» Researchers suggest that in addition to financial planning for old age we should be looking at social planning to ensure people feel connected to their community.

Social isolation and loneliness heave a significant impact on the risk for premature death said Holt-Lunstad. To illustrate this she presented data from two large meta-analyses.

The first involved 148 studies, representing more than 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50% 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 early death. 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 social isolation 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 public health 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.”

Teaching connectedness

Holt-Lunstad recommended that in order to combat this threat to public health 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.

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 centres and community gardens.