According to a new study, loneliness and lack of social connection can be more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day and worse than obesity. Therefore, that study suggests that social connectivity must be a matter of public health.

This new research found that just feeling lonely is a stronger predictor of mortality than obesity. The study includes the analysis of more than 100 other studies where hundreds of thousands of subjects are involved.

Image Credit: Alamy
Image Credit: Alamy

“I was able to analyze the cumulative data on how being socially connected, or lacking social connections, influences our longevity,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. “Yes, this should be a public health issue.”

Having meaningful social connections reduce the chances of early death by 50 percent

Social isolation indicates a lack of contact with other people. However, loneliness occurs when a person feels lonely, regardless of the connection they might have with people. According to Holt-Lunstad, it is important to know how to distinguish those terms. In the research she conducted, she found out that lacking social connections might have a worse impact on longevity and health than obesity or smoking do. She presented her conclusions at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington DC on Saturday.

Holt-Lunstad considers that social connections must be treated as a public health matter, so actions can be taken to help society. To get to these results, Dr. Holt-Lunstad analyzed 148 studies where more than 300,000 people participated. She noticed that having greater social connections can reduce the risks of early death by 50 percent. On the other hand, not having a relevant social connection can be works than smoking 15 cigarettes every day.

She also analyzed other 70 studies that included 3.4 million participants. Through these studies, the researchers examined the impact of 3 different risks factors on mortality: social isolation, loneliness, and living alone.

Through the research, they concluded that those three factors have a significant and a similar impact on risks of early death. Therefore, feeling lonely is worse than being obese.

Being alone increases the risks of suicide

Social connection refers to more than just a determinate amount of contact someone maintains with other people. It also has something to do with the type of relationships they have and the subjective quality of those relationships.

“We only looked at disease-related mortality, and we didn’t take into account accidents or suicide,” Holt-Lunstad said. “And of course, being socially isolated and lonely are also associated with increased risk for suicide. So ours is actually a conservative estimate.”

According to the American Association of Retired Persons, about 42.6 million adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness in the United States. As well, about a quarter of U.S inhabitants lives alone, while half of the entire population is not married. Moreover, the number of children per household and the marriage rates have been declining progressively in the country. Statistics show that people are becoming less social and lonelier.

Apparently, people become less actively social with time and more reliant on social media. Photo credit: AEON
Apparently, people become less actively social with time and more reliant on social media. Photo credit: AEON

Holt-Lunstad thinks that policy makers and community planners must include places that promote interaction such as recreation centers and community gardens. People can also try to improve their social skills on their own. As well, she believes this must be promoted and taught in schools. Moreover, doctors should include social connectedness in medical screening.

Why having good relationships makes people live longer?

Having meaningful social bonds with people helps to reduce stress, which is a risk factor for many for the most widespread and deadliest diseases. Additionally, friends and family can help and make people take care of themselves. As well, relationships may give meaning to a person’s life which is related to less risk-taking. People might feel loved and wanted where they have close friends.

“There’s a growing body of evidence that our relationships have direct influence on health-relevant physiological processes including blood pressure, inflammation, cellular aging and immune processes,” Holt-Lunstad said.

Sadly, the lack of social connection is a growing threat to society. It is not known if technology is to blame, but it is certain that people’s dependence on digital devices and digital communication has been increasing in the last decades. Scientists also put into doubt that being connected with friends through cell phones has the same impact and benefits of having a conversation in person; mainly because the phones cannot reproduce physical touch. However, Holt-Lunstsayssay they still don’t know the answer to that.

Studies claim that bonding with other people through life can increase the chances of having a long-term health. Credit: DekDern
Studies claim that bonding with other people through life can increase the chances of having a long-term health. Credit: DekDern

“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, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.

Source: PsychCentral