Riding off into the sunset may sound romantic and most people enjoy a degree of privacy from time to time. In fact, with today’s instant digital connectivity through social media, privacy almost seems a quaint luxury. But a new study shows that when being alone crosses the line into loneliness, it’s a serious health risk:
Loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity, and their impact has been growing and will continue to grow, according to research presented 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,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”
Anatomically modern humans evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to flourish in smallish kin-bonded groups. So perhaps it’s not too surprising that the morbidity and mortality differentials found associated with isolation go way beyond the usual risks of clinical depression. But the difference was dramatic: chronic loneliness was found to be correlated with as much as a 50% increase in premature death, making it similar in severity to traditional precursors of health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure.
It seems counter-intuitive that so many people could feel so alone that it directly threatens their physiological well being. We have smart phones buzzing with texts 24/7, emails flashing across tablets and smart watches all day long, online comment threads bursting, and countless apps and platforms for staying connected available with the swipe of a finger. But over 40 million people in the US are estimated to already be in the loneliness risk group. That number is likely to grow as more and more Americans fall out of the middle class and/or leave the permanent workforce.