Loneliness and social isolation could be a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact will continue to grow, according to research presented at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association.
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
According to a psychcentral.com report, approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness. 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.
To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for premature mortality, researchers presented data from two meta-analyses. 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 primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia, and Australia, examined the role that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone might have on mortality. 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.
Researchers noted that there is significant 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. With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health will likely increase.