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Loneliness more of a threat to health than obesity
Thursday 10 August 2017

Loneliness is a bigger threat to public health than obesity, according to new research from the US. Being connected to other people is known to be essential to our mental health, but what impact does a lack of social connection have on our physical health?

Chronic loneliness and early death

The American Psychological Association (APA) has announced at their annual convention that loneliness and social isolation is a ‘greater public health hazard than obesity’, and that the impact is growing as more people are experiencing a lack of social connection.

Figures show that 42.6 million adults over the age of 45 in the US are suffering from chronic loneliness, and more than a quarter of the population lives alone.

Figures from the UK suggest that around 10% of people over the age of 65 report feeling lonely all or most of the time.

The APA presented data from two studies, one of which found that greater social connection is associated with a 50% reduction in the risk of early death.

The second study found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone each had a significant effect on the risk of premature death, and that the level of risk is the same as or more than the effect of other known health risk factors such as obesity.

A previous study by the same researchers found that loneliness and social isolation are as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Mental health impact

Being lonely and disconnected from others can of course impact our mental health. Humans are social beings and having good relationships with others is essential to our happiness.

Being connected with others and having a sense of belonging is known to improve our emotional wellbeing, as we feel more secure, protected and have a greater sense of purpose in life.

However, how does being lonely or socially isolated impact on our physical health, and how can it be more serious to our health than being obese?

Physical health impact

Researchers have previously found that feeling lonely and isolated from others can mean your sleep is disrupted, your blood pressure is raised and you have an increase in the stress hormone cortisol.

There is also evidence that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and of having a stroke. Those who live alone are also at a higher risk of becoming disabled.

A Dutch study found that people who feel lonely are more than twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia, as those who don’t feel lonely.

Also, having social networks and relationships means people are more likely to recover if they do fall ill.

The author of this latest study from the US, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who has led a series of research projects on loneliness, said that: “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both wellbeing 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.”

What can be done?

As individuals, there are ways in which to stay socially connected, especially as we get older. The Campaign to End Loneliness advises older, retired people to find out about local activities and community groups, or to share their skills and time with others by volunteering.

The author of the US report has recommended that greater priority be placed on research and resources to tackle loneliness and social isolation, for example social skills training for children in schools and doctors including social connectedness in their medical screening.

In the UK, the Campaign to End Loneliness is calling on local authorities to prioritise local services and activities that can help prevent loneliness. They highlight that the mental and physical health problems that loneliness causes, as we’ve outlined above, means that investing in these services is a long-term cost-saving exercise for local authorities.

This is of course much in the same way as obesity – investing in health and fitness now can save on the healthcare costs associated with obesity in the future.