Can loneliness kill? A new study from Brigham Young University says yes. In fact, researchers say loneliness is now a major public health issue and represents a greater health risk than obesity and is as destructive to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The study, published in the journal “Perspectives on Psychological Science”,  was a meta-analysis that looked at 70 studies covering over 3 million people. The results: social isolation, loneliness and living alone can increase mortality risk by 29%, 26%, and 32% respectively, after adjusting for age, gender, socio-economic status and pre-existing health conditions.
 
Defining the terms: Social isolation is having few social contacts, loneliness can be described as the dissatisfaction with the discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships (Peplau & Perlman, 1982). Living alone is exactly what it implies. Living alone and few social contacts can be considered objective criteria and feelings of loneliness is a subjective one. In addition to the increased mortality, the interesting news here is that there is not much difference between the objective and subjective criteria in terms of risk.
 
The signs of obesity and smoking are easily observed; loneliness, not so much. Though it’s easy to quantify social isolation and living alone, this is not something that is included in the questions asked during an annual physical exam. And it would be uncommon for an individual to seek treatment just for feeling lonely unless there were other significant symptoms present.
 
The study shows that loneliness has negative health consequences regardless of whether the individual is living alone, surrounded by others yet feeling lonely, or is isolated because they want to be alone. One of many fascinating points here is that it doesn’t seem to matter if you are quite happy living alone and don’t feel lonely—your health is still at greater risk than someone living with another. In addition, those who are objectively isolated and subjectively lonely are at an even greater risk for a reduced life expectancy.
 
There are three major areas of health where social relationships have a positive impact:

• Behavioral: Social ties are associated with positive health behaviors, such as well-balanced diets, exercise and regular medical checkups. Appropriate avenues are more likely to be sought for stress and frustration when others are involved. Isolation, in contrast, can increase the chances of smoking, excessive drinking, drug use, lack of exercise and weight gain. It can also help lead to depression and anxiety.

• Psychosocial: Relationships provide support—a sense of being loved, appreciated and cared for and provide a purpose in life while lessening the impact of stress. Marriage, children and caring for another foster a greater sense of responsibility, thus cultivating healthier behaviors and lifestyles.

• Physiological: Healthy social ties benefit the immune system, heart and endocrine functions. Just as a socially and emotionally supportive childhood promotes both a physically and mentally healthy upbringing, having a socially supportive adulthood lessens the devastating illnesses that stress can trigger. For example, adults with cardiovascular disease who were socially isolated had a 2.4 time greater chance of having a cardiac death than an individual with strong social ties. Married adults have lower instances of heart disease, and were less likely to get pneumonia or cancer. In addition spending time with others in healthy relationships, including friendships, augments the immune system.

The authors of the study conclude "Affluent nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone since census data collection began and also likely have the highest rates in human history, with those rates projected to increase."  This begs the question why.
 
Technology (think texting, email and social media) is of course the easy scapegoat. However, it would be irresponsible to ignore the plethora of studies that say exactly that, including Loneliness and Social Networks, Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults, Adolescent Screen Time and Attachment to Parents and Peers and Relation of Adolescent Video Game Play to Time Spent in Other Activities, to name just a few that discuss the correlation between technology, loneliness and the lack of healthy social contact. Clearly electronic connectivity is taking the place of face to face connectivity and this appears to be to our detriment. At the rate we're going now, researchers are speculating we are on the way to a loneliness epidemic in the near future.

But there are two arguments here. On the one hand, humans are pack animals. We were not meant to live alone, and it's been this way since the beginning of time. It's in our nature, like wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins and other pack animals. Communication and companionship have always been of the utmost importance to our very survival. We are not like the cat family who, except for rare exceptions (lions), naturally prefer a solitary life.
 
On the other hand is the fact that our species has been constantly evolving for over 100,000 years. There is no reason to think that electronic connectivity, while relatively new now, will not eventually be accepted as the norm and that this loneliness epidemic is merely a transient blip on the radar screen of our rapidly advancing society.
As for now, learning to balance the Internet, the smart phone, social media and strong face to face interpersonal connectivity, is paramount to a healthy mental state, combating loneliness and increasing life expectancy.

About the Author

Dr. Dale Archer

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and the author of Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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