Social Isolation and Loneliness Greater Threat to Public Health Than Obesity
Synopsis: Research reveals loneliness and social isolation may represent greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow.1
Author: American Psychological Association2 Contact: apa.org
Published: 2017-08-06 Updated: 2020-09-30
Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP's Loneliness Study.
With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Many nations now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.'
Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow, according to research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
"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," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. "Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly."
Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP's Loneliness Study. In addition, the most recent U.S. census data shows more than a quarter of the population lives alone, more than half of the population is unmarried and, since the previous census, marriage rates and the number of children per household have declined.
"These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness," said Holt-Lunstad.
To illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for premature mortality, Holt-Lunstad presented data from two meta-analyses.
The first involved 148 studies, representing more than 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of early death.
The second study, involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million individuals primarily from North America but also from Europe, Asia and Australia, examined the role that social isolation, loneliness or living alone might have on mortality.
Researchers found that all three had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death, one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.
"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," said Holt-Lunstad. "With an increasing 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."
Holt-Lunstad recommended a greater priority be placed on research and resources to tackle this public health threat from the societal to the individual level. For instance, greater emphasis could be placed on social skills training for children in schools and doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening, she said.
Additionally, people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, as many social ties are related to the workplace, she noted, adding that community planners should make sure to include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens.
Session 3328: "Loneliness: A Growing Public Health Threat," Plenary, Saturday, Aug. 5, 3-3:50 p.m. EDT, Room 151A, Street Level, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mount Vernon Pl., N.W., Washington, D.C. Presentations are available from the APA Public Affairs Office.
- Why Lonely Teens Stay Lonely - Findings show adolescents with history of chronic loneliness seem to respond to social situations in ways that may perpetuate their loneliness.
- Loneliness and The Risk of Premature Death - Article looks at the health aspect of loneliness and social isolation, particularly among seniors.
- Brain and Loneliness Connection - fMRI scans study connections between perceived social isolation or loneliness and activity in the human brain.
2Source/Reference: American Psychological Association (apa.org). Disabled World makes no warranties or representations in connection therewith. Content may have been edited for style, clarity or length.
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