How often do you spend time with friends and family? Research has found that loneliness may be a greater health hazard than obesity.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both wellbeing and survival,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.

“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.”

Chronic loneliness

Approximately 42,6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to the American Association of Retired Persons’ (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.

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

Dying of loneliness

Holt-Lunstad presented data from two analyses at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

  • 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, found that social isolation, loneliness or living alone had an equal effect on the risk of premature death as other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity. 

Tackling loneliness

Holt-Lunstad recommends prioritising research and resources to tackle this public health threat. Her suggestions include:

  • Social skills training for children in schools
  • Encouraging doctors to include social connectedness in medical screening
  • Preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, as many social ties are related to the workplace
  • Community planners should include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centres and community gardens.

Source: American Psychological Association via www.sciencedaily.com

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