The world may seem like a smaller and more connected place than it was decades ago, but research is showing a large segment of the adult population is very lonely. It has been deemed a “loneliness epidemic,” and the numbers back up that name. In the U.S. alone, over 42 million 45 and older suffer chronic loneliness.
According to new research, loneliness isn’t just making people sad; it could actually be killing them. The new stats say the alarming number of those in social isolation is a threat to public health, maybe even deadlier than obesity. And the loneliness issue could get worse because of a decreasing number of children per household, declines in marriage, and an aging population.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, says, “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.”
This study in loneliness is the largest to date and was presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. The researchers in this study used data from two previous meta-analyses. A total of 218 studies, using data gathered from nearly 4 million people in the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Australia were used. Using the data from the studies, the researchers presented that social isolation, loneliness, or simply living alone had a risk of an early death. The data also supported social connection is linked to a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.
It’s important to note that chronic loneliness is a very different from just feeling alone. Many past studies have shown a link between loneliness and physical health issues. People suffering from chronic loneliness can face dementia, cardiovascular problems, and a weakened immune system. One of the biggest issues is fragmented sleep caused by social isolation. Sleeping less and at odd hours can contribute to a host of health issues on its own—from higher blood pressure to increased heart rate. The side effects of isolation need to be taken seriously.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase the risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Holt-Lunstad.
The researchers are looking to shed light on what they think is an overlooked issue. They hope the findings allow it to be addressed from a public health level. The goal would be to add public screenings for loneliness to medical evaluation protocol and then offers resources to help individuals in need.
“With an increasingly 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.”
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