Health & Diet

Loneliness Is Very Bad for Your Health

A new study indicates that social isolation can kill you

By Lola Augustine Brown

 

Just weeks after Statistics Canada told us that more than a quarter of Canadians—28.2%—live alone, we learn from new US study results that loneliness is a major health risk.

The risk to your health is equal to that posed by smoking 15 cigarettes a day, says the lead researcher, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, adding that loneliness presents a greater risk than obesity, physical inactivity, or alcohol consumption.

Given that the population is getting older and that for the first time in history one-person households are now the most common type in Canada, it’s not surprising that Holt-Lunstad, who presented the BYU findings at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, spoke of the possibility of a “loneliness epidemic,” saying that loneliness and social isolation should be treated as a serious public health hazard.

The BYU researchers looked at two sets of data. The first analyzed 148 separate studies involving a total of more than 300,000 participants and showed that greater social connection is associated with a 50% drop in the risk for premature death. The second study involved data from 70 studies representing 3.4 million people and looked at the effect of loneliness, social isolation, or living alone on mortality—it found an effect equal to or greater than that of known risk factors such as obesity and smoking.

A 2016 UK study showed that loneliness bumped up the risk for heart disease and stroke by 30%, and researchers at Harvard University last year linked having fewer friends with higher levels of a blood-clotting protein that can cause heart attack and strokes.

It’s never too late to broaden your networks and get more of a life. Don’t know where to start? Connect with an old friend for coffee. Join a book club or other kind of group at your local library. Take a cooking class. Volunteer. Get a dog, because having one forces you out of the house at least twice a day and facilitates social interaction. There are lots of ways to become less isolated and feel less lonely, and most take a minimum of effort.

Photo: iStock/shironosov.