Loneliness may increase risk of premature death, finds study

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.” — Mother Teresa.

Loneliness has always been associated with negative feelings, with researchers drawing parallels between mental illnesses and loneliness. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research (JCDR), lonely people are more vulnerable to depressive symptoms. The study had reported an association between loneliness and severe conditions like dementia, alcohol abuse, chronic stress, suicide ideation, poor sleep and personality disorder.

Researching on these lines, an August 2017 study has recognized loneliness and social isolation as greater public health hazard than obesity. According to the study carried out by the American Psychological Association (APA), people experiencing loneliness and social isolation are more likely to die prematurely. Researchers suggested that their impact had been increasing and would continue to rise.

The authors believed that connecting to others socially was a fundamental human need for both well-being and survival. Presenting data from two large studies at the APA’s 125th Annual Convention, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, cited the examples of infants in custodial care who in the absence of human contact failed to thrive and met premature death.

To demonstrate the association between social isolation/loneliness and risk for premature mortality, the authors considered data from two meta-analyses. The first with 148 studies represented over 300,000 participants, while the second with 70 studies represented over 3.4 million individuals. The first analysis reported that people with greater social connection had 50 percent reduced risk of premature death. On the other hand, the second study found a significantly high risk of premature death in people battling loneliness. Surprisingly, the risk of dying early due to loneliness was equal to or exceeded the effect of other known risk factors such as obesity.

“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,” said Holt-Lunstad.

The researchers were concerned about the increasing prevalence of isolation and loneliness among the U.S. population. Nearly 43 million adults aged more than 45 in the country had chronic loneliness, revealed a survey by AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) on loneliness. Furthermore, the U.S. census data reported loneliness in more than a quarter of the population, while more than half was unmarried.

The researchers were also concerned about the growing rate of aging population, which tends to aggravate the risk. They emphasized on the need of research and resources to deal with this public health problem. They recommended implementing social skills training for children at school level so that they do not grow up as lonely beings. Moreover, doctors should be encouraged to focus on social connectedness of the patient during medical screening. The authors also felt the need of establishing shared social spaces at workplaces, including recreation centers and community gardens. Such places can help encourage the sense of togetherness and induce interaction and tolerance.

Dealing with loneliness

Loneliness for a long period can lead to serious health consequences and may affect an individual’s mental and physical well-being. Therefore, it is important to introduce timely interventions aimed at providing social support and developing skills, as well as recognize the early signs of maladaptive social cognition.

If you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health problem related to loneliness or social isolation, the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline can help. Chat online or call our mental rehab helpline number 855-653-8178 for more details.