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Mental Health, Mental Health Care, Mental Illness, Public Health, Science, Society, Uncategorized, Women's Health

Loneliness And Social Isolation Are Just As Deadly As Obesity, Study Finds


Social media—from Facebook to Twitter—have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, a growing body of research suggests that we have never been lonelier —and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill. Now, a new study indicates that the health effects of loneliness and social isolation may be even deadlier than obesity.

“The public is very aware of common physical health indicators and risk factors,” said Dr. Tim Smith, professor of counseling psychology and one of the study’s authors. “Everyone understands that diet, exercise, smoking, alcohol use and obesity pose risks. Well, it turns out social isolation is just as predictive of death.”

In earlier research, Dr. Smith and the study’s lead author, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology, found that loneliness poses a substantial risk of death — similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being alcoholic. The new study says the risk surpasses that posed by obesity and the researchers note that a lot of people are endangered.

“Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” said Dr. Smith. “With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a variety of past health studies. Altogether, the sample included more than 3 million participants from studies that included data on loneliness, social isolation, and living alone.

Controlling for variables such as socioeconomic status, age, gender, and pre-existing health conditions, the researchers found that the effects of these social factors can go both ways: a lack of social connections presents an added risk, while the existence of supportive relationships provides a positive health effect. The new findings are published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.

“The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously,” said Dr. Holt-Lunstad. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

It’s important to note that loneliness and social isolation don’t always go hand in hand. Feelings of loneliness can still occur while being surrounded by many people, and some people choose to isolate themselves socially because they prefer to be alone. The effect on longevity, however, is much the same for those two scenarios.

And in the new study, it wasn’t just older adults whose longevity suffered. Rather, the authors found that social deficits were more predictive of premature death for people younger than 65.

Scientists have proposed several explanations for the health risks linked to isolation. First, being isolated may mean that no one else is aware of the first signs of illness, or worsening symptoms of a disease, which can delay medical attention and lead to earlier death.

Social isolation also impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Additionally, social contact can have profound physiological effects. Simply holding a loved one’s hand lowers blood pressure and reduces pain, for example. Studies also show that lack of affectionate physical contact is associated with higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation.


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3 thoughts on “Loneliness And Social Isolation Are Just As Deadly As Obesity, Study Finds

  1. Extremely invaluable and informative article. Because there are so many branches to choose from, I would like to just highlight one; the ability to be alone. In developmental psychology this ability is one that reflects a psychologically healthy person. The developmental psychologist Winnicott describes the following paradox: in order for an infant to develop a sense of self as independent from others, it is dependent on the other to provide the environment in which to develop this sense. It is within a relationship that we learn how to be alone. As the article points out, it is not the number of people around us that counts, but if there is no one to relate to (and at this point in our species history it needs to be a physical relationship, not virtual), this important ability to be alone will not be developed.

    Posted by Sara Jacobovici | March 25, 2015, 4:12 am
    • Thanks so much for your insightful comment! Have you ever heard of the book “Alone Together” by social psychologist Sherry Turkle? It’s a very interesting read that explores how our society’s increasing use of (and reliance on) technology (e.g., texting, social media) is fundamentally changing how we relate to and interact with others, and much of the discussion is premised on the paradox you described above — the idea that if we don’t teach our children how to be alone, they will always be lonely. In her first book (“Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet”), which was written around 1999 or so, Turkle was more positive in her assessment of new communication technologies, particularly in terms of the potential for new opportunities to explore identity using online platforms. Actually, that work (if I remember correctly) was based in part on Winnicott’s theory of potential space — i.e., a space between fantasy and reality in which people may be more free to tap into their true selves. In the early days of the Internet, Turkle believed the “potential space” of the virtual world might have promising therapeutic potential. However, now that digital devices have become so ubiquitous, Turkle warns that the constant state of being “connected” has created an unhealthy escape route that leads to avoidance and emotional distancing. This is making people dependent on others for validation, she says, and undermining their development as individual, differentiated people.

      Posted by publichealthwatch | March 26, 2015, 9:48 pm

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