WASHINGTON — Is feeling alone the greatest health problem Americans face? While the obesity epidemic has long been front-and-center in major cities across the U.S., new research finds that loneliness and social isolation is an even greater public health threat than being overweight.
Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University conducted two meta-analyses of previous studies to determine how social isolation, loneliness, and living alone plays a role in a person’s risk of dying.
In an analysis of 148 studies that included more than 300,000 people total, her research team found that “a greater social connection” cuts a person’s risk of early death by 50 percent.
“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,” says Holt-Lunstad in an American Psychological Association press release. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
In her second analysis, she looked at the role that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone played in a person’s lifespan. Using 70 studies that included more than 3.4 million participants (mostly from North America, but some studies did look at people in Europe, Asia, and Australia), the research team concluded that all three were as much of — and in some cases more — a threat to a person’s health as obesity and other risk factors.
All three conditions were found to be equally hazardous and significantly raised the risk of premature death.
“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,” says Holt-Lunstad.
According to AARP’s Loneliness Study conducted in 2010, 35 percent of Americans age 45 and older are suffering from chronic loneliness — which equates to about 43 million people. Similarly, half the country’s adult population is unmarried and more than a quarter live alone, according to U.S. census data.
“These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” adds Holt-Lunstad, who presented the findings today at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington.
Moving forward, Holt-Lunstad hopes that health officials nationwide spend significant resources to help tackle the issues of loneliness and isolation. She suggests primary care physicians screen for such conditions during routine examinations and that Americans consider ways to ensure they enjoy a socially-connected retirement in similar ways they plan financially for retiring. Otherwise, she sees the issue growing far worse in the near future.
“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,” she says.