Feeling lonely? You’re not alone and you should take the chronic feeling seriously. Recent research performed by Professor Holt-Lunstad at Brigham Young University and presented at the American Psychological Association conference has explored the impacts loneliness and social isolation can have on premature death. Two metadata analyses produced key results. The first examined 300,000 participants from 148 studies and found that those with great social connection showed a 50% less chance of premature death. The second study examined a population of 3.4 million from 78 studies and found that the risk factors – loneliness, social isolation and living alone – all had significant and equal effect on premature death, and were just as likely, or more likely, to cause death as risk factors like obesity.
Loneliness, as described by psychologists, is a difference between what we want from our social relationships and what we receive. It afflicts both the young and old. Loneliness in older populations is well studied and the retired are considered to be high risk. An AARP study in 2014 showed that 35% of over 3000 participants above the age of 45 were categorized as lonely, equating to roughly 42.6 million adults in the US. The same study found that unmarried respondents were almost twice as likely to be lonely and that those with lower incomes were also more susceptible. Recent studies have shown that young people may be even lonelier than the elderly; this has been attributed to the rise of social media and increased replacement of social interactions with technology.
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The mechanism by which loneliness causes premature death is less clear than the correlation. Previous results have shown that loneliness is associated with increased risk of depression and alcoholism and higher levels of perceived stress, which are known mental and physical health risks. Other known health risks linked to loneliness include sleeping problems, increased blood pressure, and increased cortisol levels. One scientific study demonstrates that loneliness may alter and suppress the immune system, by increasing CTRA (“conserved transcriptional response to adversity”) gene expression. This would impair the production of white blood cells though increased inflammation and decreased antiviral responses, making lonely people susceptible to chronic illness, and thus premature death.
These studies increasingly support loneliness as a health risk, not just a social one. As a country, the US may be facing a ‘loneliness epidemic‘. Loneliness is on the rise, with studies categorizing 11-20% of the population as lonely in the 1970s and 80s, and between 26-45% now. Public health officials must consider how to address this issue. Some solutions include creating a 24-7 crisis line, opening online chatrooms, and training adults in healthy social relationships. Professor Holt-Lunstad suggests some solutions, including social programs which match youth with the elderly, increasing options for elderly communal housing and planning events at community hubs like senior centers. She advises planning for retirement socially, in the way we do financially, as much of our social lives revolve around our workplace.
Featured Image Credit: Ben Raynal, Flickr