Loneliness could be a major threat to public health, study reports

This reveals the importance of human contact and hints that loneliness may be a much bigger problem than many people realize.

Billy Kirk | Aug 09, 2017

Loneliness and social isolation could be a more serious public health threat than obesity, a pair of meta-analysis presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association and published in the journal PLOS One report.

Researchers from Brigham Young University made this discovery by analyzing a range of different studies that looked at how both loneliness and social isolation affect mortality. While each of those issues sound the same, they are quite different. Loneliness is a feeling of being emotionally disconnected from those around you, while isolation is a direct lack of contact with other people.

The first analysis covered 148 studies that studied more than 300,000 adults. This revealed that those who had good connections with other people were 50 percent less likely to die a premature death than those who were socially isolated. In contrast, the second analysis -- which looked at 70 studies that covered 3.4 million adults -- showed that loneliness and solitary living were both linked to a highest risk for premature death.

This reveals the importance of human contact and hints that loneliness may be a much bigger problem than many people realize.

"Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic,'" said study lead author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University, Tech Timesreports.

The AARP estimates that roughly 42 million U.S. adults over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness. Though this does not always directly lead to poor health, it has been marked as a good predictor of certain problems. In fact, people with "poor" health were more than half as likely to be lonely than those who had their health rated as "excellent."

In addition, recent census data also notes than nearly a quarter of Americans live alone. This suggests that many people are becoming more isolated as time goes on, which may increase the epidemic in future years.

Though no steps are being taken yet, researchers believe that more measures should be put into practice to better connect people. This could include testing for social connectedness on an individual level and training children in social skills.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need crucial to both well-being and survival," added Holt-Lunstad. "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."

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