Obesity has become a major public health concern, affecting more than a third of adults in the United States. New research, however, suggests that there are two bigger threats: loneliness and social isolation.
Two new meta-analyses from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT, reveal that loneliness and social isolation may increase the risk of premature death by up to 50 percent.
Study co-author Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at BYU, and colleagues recently presented their findings at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, held in Washington, D.C.
While loneliness and social isolation are often used interchangeably, there are notable differences between the two. Social isolation is defined as a lack of contact with other individuals, while loneliness is the feeling that one is emotionally disconnected from others. In essence, a person can be in the presence of others and still feel lonely.
According to a survey from the AARP, around 35 percent of adults aged 45 and older can be categorized as lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation have both been associated with poor health. One study reported by Medical News Today last year, for example, suggested that loneliness may be linked to Alzheimer's disease, while other research linked social isolation to reduced survival for breast cancer patients.
For this latest research, Prof. Holt-Lunstad and team sought to determine how loneliness and social isolation influence the risk of early death.
'Robust evidence' that loneliness kills
The researchers came to their findings by conducting two meta-analyses of studies that looked at the link between loneliness, social isolation, and mortality.
The first meta-analysis included more than 300,000 adults across 148 studies, while the second comprised 70 studies involving more than 3.4 million adults.
The data from the first meta-analysis revealed that the risk of premature death was 50 percent lower for adults who had a greater connection with others, compared with those who were socially isolated.
From the second meta-analysis, the researchers found that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone were all associated with an increased risk of early death.
What is more, the team found that the risk of early death associated with loneliness, social isolation, and living alone was equal to or greater than the premature death risk associated with obesity and other major health conditions.
"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."
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D.
Prof. Holt-Lunstad notes that these results are particularly concerning given that the aging population is increasing.
"Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic,'" she adds. "The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."
According to Prof. Holt-Lunstad, one way to help overcome the loneliness epidemic is to put more resources into tackling loneliness among individuals and as a society.
For example, she suggests that there should be more focus on social skills training for schoolchildren, and that doctors should look to incorporate social connectedness in medical screening.
Furthermore, Prof. Holt-Lunstad says that older adults should not only prepare for the financial implications of retirement, but for the social ones, too, noting that the social connections of many adults stem from the workplace.