According to new research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, a common social condition is now recognized as being deadlier than obesity. This condition is so widespread that researchers say it is a major threat to public health. Over 42 million adults over the age of 45 in the United States are suffering from a “loneliness epidemic,” and it may prove deadly for many.
Researchers used data from two meta-analysis that were previously conducted. One involved 148 studies and represented more than 300,000 participants across the United States. The other involved 70 studies and represented over 3.4 million people from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Using date from both studies, researchers concluded that social isolation, loneliness and even living alone had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death. The study also showed that a greater social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Bringham Young University explained, “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.”
A Worsening Epidemic
Researchers believe that the issue of social isolation will continue to get worse, due to a decreasing number of children per household, declines in marriage an an aging population. Chronic loneliness has been linked to many health problems, including trouble sleeping, dementia and a weakened immune system.
Holt-Lunstad explained, “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.”
Researchers hope their work will shed a light on the importance of chronic loneliness so it can be inserted into discussions about public health. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase,” the study reads. “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.”