Why Doctors Should Screen You For Loneliness

Social isolation is a public health epidemic.

Photo by Benedicto de Jesus on Unsplash

Our societal loneliness epidemic is growing, and, along with it, the body of research showing just how dangerous it for us. The latest addition is new research that suggests loneliness may pose a greater public health risk than obesity.

The research was presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, presented findings gleaned from studying two meta-analyses. In the first, which included 148 studies and more than 300,000 participants, researchers found that those with higher social connection had 50 percent decreased risk of early death than those with a lower level of connection.

In the second meta-analysis, researchers looked at how three factors—social isolation, loneliness or living alone—might affect mortality. They found all three had an equal and significant effect on the risk of premature death. Additionally, the risk these factors posed was “equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity,” according to the press release.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival,” Holt-Lunstad, PhD said in the press release. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”

The release points to AARP’s Loneliness Study, which found that approximately 42.6 million adults in the U.S. over 45-years-old are thought to be living with chronic loneliness. It’s likely going to get worse, too: the most recent U.S. census found that both marriage and birth rates are on the decline, and that more than a quarter of the population lives alone.

“These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” Holt-Lunstad said. While the findings didn’t outline the reasons behind the increase in social isolation, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that technology has something to do with it.

Though the internet and social media can indeed help us stay socially connected, they can adversely make us feel more isolated, or make us less likely to seek in-person interactions. Plus, urban spaces are changing, and as cities become more technologically connected, people will have less need to actually engage with each other

Holt-Lunstad gave suggestions for those at each end of the age spectrum: that adults prepare for retirement “socially as well as financially,” and that children be taught social skills in school.

Read more about the findings here

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