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Loneliness Poses Greater Public Health Threat Than Obesity

Why prevention is far more possible than we realize.

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The American Psychological Association (APA) warns that the loneliness epidemic now represents a threat to public health that exceeds that of obesity.

Before getting into the specifics, we need to have a clear understanding of what loneliness is, and what it isn’t: Loneliness is defined subjectively, not objectively. In other words, what matters is not how many friends you have or how many people you have around you on a daily basis. Rather, what matters is whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from others. Indeed, many people who are married and live with family members report feeling significant loneliness, because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners and loved ones.

The APA release summarized research presented at the group's 125th annual convention last month, and focused primarily on social disconnection. The APA reports that more than 42 million adults over the age of 45 in the U.S. suffer from chronic loneliness, and that number is likely to grow because of our aging population.

In previous posts, I discussed the specific health risks associated with loneliness, as well as the fact that scientists believed that chronic loneliness represented as great a risk to our long-term health and longevity as cigarette smoking. Now it is being compared to obesity.

The most tragic and compelling aspect of the loneliness epidemic is how preventable it is. The problem is a fundamental lack of awareness, both for lonely people and for those around them. It isn’t easy to approach a friend or loved one and express concerns about their smoking habits or their obesity, yet many of us do so regardless. But how many of us have approached a friend or loved one to discuss our concerns about their loneliness?

Public dialogues about the dangers of smoking and of obesity have gone on for decades. People who smoke and those who struggle with obesity are aware that their health and longevity are at risk. But lonely people are largely unaware of the risks they face, as are their friends and loved ones.

Consider that when a loved one smokes, there is nothing we can do to help them other than urge them to change their habits and lifestyle. But when it comes to loneliness, we can actually be the solution: We can reach out, call, visit, and include them in activities and get-togethers. We can initiate deeper, more meaningful conversations and make them feel seen and loved.

Indeed, one of the studies cited by the APA found that having stronger and deeper social connections was associated with a 50 percent drop in risk of early mortality.

Solutions should come from within our neighborhoods and communities as well. Local municipalities and neighborhood associations could organize activities for retired persons. Schools can urge students to visit with homebound people or those with limited mobility. The options for interventions are numerous.

The loneliness epidemic isn’t going away. And unlike smoking or obesity, increased awareness, a more robust public discussion, and local efforts can have a huge impact on prevention. It is up to us to make that happen.

For more information, read the chapter about loneliness in, Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).

Watch my viral TED Talk about boosting your emotional health.

Also, join my email list and receive an exclusive gift article — "How to Recover from Rejection."

Copyright 2017 Guy Winch

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