Long-standing threats to public health from substances like alcohol and tobacco are being overtaken by those created by modern living. Sedentary lifestyles are one problem, but loneliness is becoming the biggest.
Loneliness and social isolation may also surpass obesity as a public health hazard, according to research presented at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association. The significance of the problem is likely to increase over time.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, said:
“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.
“Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
According to a Loneliness Study from the AARP, more than 42 million adults over age 45 in the United States are thought to be living with chronic loneliness.
The most recent census in the country also produced worrying figures, showing that a quarter of people live alone, more than half are unmarried, and marriage and childbirth rates are falling.
“These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” said Holt-Lunstad.
A loneliness epidemic
Along with colleagues, Holt-Lunstad conducted research based on collated studies involving millions of people, mostly from the US but also from Europe, Asia and Australia.
One finding was that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduction in risk of premature death. Another was that social isolation, loneliness and living alone all had a similarly significant effect on mortality.
“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.”
How can we deal with it?
Holt-Lunstad said that urgent action is needed, which could include social skills training for schoolchildren, doctors including social connectedness in patient assessments, and better preparation for retirement socially as well as financially.
Spaces for community interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens, could also be increased.
Image credit: IZ.ZY/Unsplash