Just about everyone feels lonely from time to time, but researchers are increasingly worried about those who feel alone all the time — so much so, that they've begun calling chronic loneliness a public health hazard.
A recent review of studies from AARP is just the latest in a line of research claiming that feeling lonely can actually be detrimental to a person's health — and sometimes even result in death.
The organization presented their research at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.
"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment," Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, said in a statement about the research. "Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly."
Researchers looked at two sets of data, the first from 148 studies that included more than 300,000 subjects. Data from those studies found that having better social connections was associated with a 50% lower risk of early death. The second set of data, taken from 70 studies that included more than 3.4 million people, found that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone all had equal (and significant) correlation to early death.
In comparison with other factors scientists often contribute to early death — such as smoking and obesity (although the research there is controversial) — loneliness was either equally likely to increase mortality risk or more likely. To break that down: Some research essentially claims that being lonely could be worse for someone's health than smoking.
This isn't the first time science has found loneliness connected with poor health. Another AARP study in 2010 found that 35% of respondents were chronically lonely, with an even greater percentage (43%) of older adults claiming loneliness. And 2012 research found that loneliness might actually change your body at a molecular level.
"Many of the people who end up lonely give off signals they want to be alone out of anxiety... Feeling left out has a huge effect on our psyche from our evolutionary worries that everyone else will survive and we won’t," Jacqueline Olds, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, told the Washington Post about that research.
Like researchers before them, AARP is calling for more research and resources to teach people how to create social connections from an early age, or to help older Americans who may never have learned. Organizations like The Campaign To End Loneliness in the UK are already on top of this work, and attempting to prove to legislators who make choices about healthcare that loneliness really is a health hazard.
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