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Loneliness: A silent killer

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Loneliness and social isolation could now be a greater risk factor for premature death than obesity.

Of all the health threats we hear about on a near-daily basis – smoking, obesity, toxicity and more – there is a risk factor that should be on the top 10 list but has only lately began to draw serious attention. Recent research shows that loneliness and social isolation could now be a greater risk factor for premature death than obesity. This often invisible, silent problem is now so widespread that experts are speaking in terms of a “loneliness epidemic.”

The American Psychological Association presented research in August 2017 that was based on two meta-analyses. The first examined 148 studies involving 300,000 participants and found that increased social connectedness was linked to a whopping 50 percent lower risk of premature death. The other study, examining 3.4 million people across 70 different studies, revealed that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone has as significant or equal an effect on premature mortality as obesity and other major risk factors. It is time to take our own loneliness – and that of those around us – seriously.

According to AARP’s Loneliness study, approximately 42.6 million people over the age of 45 in the United States are suffering from chronic loneliness. And the numbers are increasing. Since the 1980s, the percentage of American adults who self-identify as “lonely” has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent. Looking at some current statistics gives us some insight on why this might be. The US marriage rate has been in decline for years, and it is not expected to change course any time soon. Birth rates are also in decline, with 2016 producing the fewest babies born in the USA in American history. So, fewer young adults are getting married, and when they do, they have fewer children.

Among seniors and the elderly in the USA, approximately one in three people over the age of 65 and about one half over 85 live alone, with more women living alone than men. For a variety of reasons, many elderly people regularly find themselves alone and without meaningful interpersonal contact for long stretches of time.  This has been recognized as such a problem that several organizations, including San Francisco’s Institute on Aging, now operate a “Friendship Line” – a 24-hour, toll-free loneliness call-in line that also operates as a suicide-prevention hotline.

The “call your mom” cliché is now more than just a kindly social nudge. It can actually support her mental and physical health. Among seniors, loneliness and social isolation comes with additional risks. According to a Dutch study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, seniors who reported feeling lonely had a significantly higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s-type dementia than those who had strong social support.

Virtual social networks, in spite of their benefits, have not made us more meaningfully connected to one another. And with many nuclear and extended families lacking the strong ties that were stereotypical of previous generations, there is no easy fix to this painful problem. It is time to have a look at our own families as well as our communities, and find ways to strengthen weak social ties, as well as forge new ones.

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