Why the ‘loneliness epidemic’ is deadly
You know the old saying, “Money can’t buy love”? Well, it turns out it’s true.
Not only can love not be acquired, but a lack of it can actually lead to a shorter life. New research now suggests that people who are lonely are 50 percent more likely to die prematurely than those who are socially connected. A second study indicated that loneliness was equal to or more dangerous than obesity in predicting early death.
While loneliness can be experienced anywhere, it is quite common in developed nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
According to a study by the AARP, approximately 42.6 million American adults are suffering from loneliness. The prevalence of loneliness is attributed to factors such as the high divorce rate, decreasing marriage rates, increase in the number of people who live alone and decline in the birth rate.
“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, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, explained in her presentation of her findings at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”
As for exactly why and how loneliness impacts our physical health, and thus our longevity, there are numerous explanations. Previous research showed that loneliness seemed to have a negative effect on immune response. Additionally, loneliness is a form of stress, which itself disrupts the immune system and is associated with heart disease and other devastating health conditions that can shorten our lives.
Loneliness also impacts our behaviors, which in turn affect our health. For example, one study showed that single and widowed men and women 50 and older eat fewer vegetables—which are known for their health-enhancing qualities—than people who were married or lived together. Another study also indicated that people who are lonely tend to be physically inactive, another major risk factor for chronic health conditions and early death. It’s always easier to work out with a buddy!
The good news is you don’t have to be a social butterfly to reap the plentiful rewards of social interaction.
“It’s important to note that someone can be alone, or have only a handful of close friends, and not be lonely,” Dr. Bruce Rabin, director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Healthy Lifestyle Program, told Health.
There many ways to become socially connected, including volunteering, getting involved with a religious group or intramural team sport, or simply spending more time with family. However you choose to connect, prioritizing your relationships with others has big health payoffs, and who knows, it might just save your life.