We don’t often think about the repercussions of living a solitary life, but maybe it’s time we start. According to new research published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a lack of social connection may have serious consequences for our health and longevity.
Researchers from Brigham Young University analyzed nearly 35 years of data on how loneliness, social isolation and living alone can impact your lifespan. What they discovered was deeply unsettling.
“The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something public health takes very seriously,” says BYU researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstad, lead author of the study. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”
The data, which was based on roughly 3 million participants, found that the subjective feeling of loneliness increases risk of death by 26%. This is particularly worrisome given that loneliness plagues nearly 60 million Americans.
But what if you live alone? What if you enjoy spending time by yourself?
While being alone and feeling alone are not the same thing, the effect on longevity, however, is similar. Social isolation and living alone were found to be even more harmful to a person’s health than feelings of loneliness, increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32% respectively. This is on par with the risk mortality associated with obesity.
Yet as staggering as these findings are, they aren’t exactly new. Earlier research has found that isolation and loneliness threaten longevity as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic. And a number of studies have revealed the ways isolation and loneliness can manifest in health issues:
BYU researchers urge people to heed the study as a warning.[ No, no need – I think if we want we can put them at the bottom of the post]
“This is something that we need to take seriously for our health,” warns Holt-Lunstad. “This should become a public-health issue.”
After all, these days, it’s easier than ever to go an entire day without actually interacting with another human being. We use texts and emails to say “I love you,” we use social media to wish others a “happy birthday,” we do our banking, book our travel and order groceries all with the simple click of a finger. But the irony is, the more technologically connected we become, the more socially isolated from each other we find ourselves.
The lack of social interaction and human experience is further exacerbated by the fact that more Americans are living alone than ever before. Did you know that in 1970, only one of every six households had a single person? Compare that to 2012, when more than one in four households had someone living alone. Experts chock it up to Americans marrying later, having fewer children, divorcing at higher rates and living longer. When those factors are combined, it doesn’t seem so abstract that at some point, many find themselves living alone, even if only temporary.
So where does this leave us?
“With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future,” said Tim Smith, co-author of the study.
Not if we can start now to work against the effects of loneliness. Because the good news is that the study also found that the presence of social relationships provided the opposite, positive effect on health and longevity.
“In essence, the study is saying the more positive psychology we have in our world, the better we’re able to function not just emotionally but physically,” Smith adds.
So if you or someone you know finds themselves in a situation of isolation or loneliness, make the decision to do something about it. You may just find that you not only live better, you live longer.