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How Loneliness Can Impact Our Health and Lifespan

Loneliness is now recognized as a critical public health concern.

Key points

  • Lonely individuals are at a higher risk of developing health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • New research found that people who reported isolation or loneliness were more likely to die early.
  • This connection held for both men and women.

Loneliness is now recognized as a critical public health concern. Lonely individuals are at a significantly higher risk of developing serious health conditions such as stroke, diabetes, dementia, heart disease, and arthritis. They are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, eating disorders, alcoholism, and sleep deprivation. A 2015 meta-analysis found that the risks associated with loneliness and social isolation were comparable to other health hazards like obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes per day. In addition to increasing risk factors for serious health conditions, recent research has revealed links between prolonged loneliness and longevity.

A recent review published in Nature of over 90 studies that included more than 2.2 million people globally found that those who self-reported social isolation or loneliness were more likely to die early from all causes. The findings demonstrated a 29% and 26% increased risk of all-cause mortality associated with social isolation and loneliness. This comprehensive study encompassed diverse populations, including individuals with cardiovascular diseases or cancer, from various countries such as the US, the UK, Japan, Korea, and Finland.

The research revealed that both social isolation and loneliness are associated with an elevated risk of all-cause mortality in the general population. Specifically, social isolation was linked to a higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease, while socially isolated patients with breast cancer faced higher cancer-specific mortality. These findings highlight the need to prioritize social connections for cancer patients to extend their survival time.

While previous studies suggested that women were less likely to experience social isolation but more prone to loneliness, this meta-analysis demonstrated an increased risk of all-cause mortality associated with social isolation in both men and women. However, no association was found between loneliness and all-cause mortality risk in either gender.

The different measurements of social isolation and loneliness used in the studies and the focus on high-income countries are important limitations of the review to consider, but overall, we can not ignore the mounting evidence that loneliness and social have a tangible impact on our health and rates are rising among all populations.

The repercussions of a loneliness epidemic extend beyond individual health; they affect our communities as a whole. Communities with stronger social cohesion exhibit lower disease rates and all-cause mortality compared to those lacking social capital. They are more resilient in the face of natural disasters and experience less violence. Thus, addressing social connection has become a matter of public health urgency, on par with combating tobacco use, obesity, and addiction.

The Surgeon General's recent advisory on this issue emphasizes the imperative of investing in strategies that alleviate the epidemic of loneliness. These include strengthening the social infrastructure by providing communal spaces and activities to facilitate social connection, developing public policies that prioritize fostering connections, and mobilizing the health sector to identify and support individuals at risk of isolation.

Reforms in digital environments such as social media are also needed to mitigate negative effects and promote transparency, while research and public awareness campaigns can deepen our understanding and raise awareness of this pressing issue.

Undoubtedly, these strategies will require significant investment and cooperation from multiple stakeholders. However, the social and economic costs of inaction are too great to ignore. According to a study by the AARP, social isolation among older adults in the US contributes to an estimated $6.7 billion in annual medical insurance expenditure. By addressing social isolation and loneliness, we can improve individual well-being and build healthier, more resilient communities for the benefit of all.

More from William A. Haseltine Ph.D.
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