Loneliness A Bigger Health Risk Than Obesity? Social Isolation Could Be Especially Dangerous To Seniors

How could loneliness be a greater health risk than obesity? While the risks of the latter may outweigh that of the former in some ways, psychologists believe that loneliness and social isolation could pose a more serious overall danger to people, especially senior citizens.

Speaking at the American Psychological Association's 125th annual convention, Brigham Young University professor of psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad explained that it is important that people have some sort of social connection to others, for the benefit of their well-being. According to a report from PsychCentral, Holt-Lunstad cited some "extreme examples" of how a lack of social connection could be dangerous, such as infants dying following a lack of human contact, and criminals receiving solitary confinement in jail as punishment for their actions.

In an effort to explain how loneliness could trump obesity as a health risk, Holt-Lunstad brought up two meta-analyses — not actual studies, but rather a combination of data across several studies — at this week's American Psychological Association convention.

The first meta-analysis combined data from 148 studies, and revealed that out of 300,000 participants, healthy social connections were linked to a 50 percent lower risk of early death. The second meta-analysis only covered 70 studies, but represented a much larger number of subjects — 3.4 million people from different continents. Based on the data across those studies, social isolation, loneliness, or living alone all had a "significant and equal effect" on the chances of early death. This effect was shown to be equal to, or greater than the effect of obesity and other "well-accepted" risk factors that could lead to premature death.

Putting things in context with regards to the effect of loneliness on one's health, obesity or being overweight kills at least 2.8 million adults each year. The European Association for the Study of Obesity's fact sheet went on to explain that obesity is the fifth-leading risk factor for global death, with the number of obese individuals having almost doubled globally since 1980.

According to Medical News Today, Holt-Lunstad stressed that the results of the meta-analyses are especially troubling, since loneliness is a common issue with older individuals, whose population is on the rise.

"With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."
With the above findings showing how loneliness could potentially be more dangerous than obesity in terms of one's chances of premature death, Holt-Lunstad stressed that people in general should be armed with the right tools to prevent loneliness from becoming a problem later in life. For example, children should receive social skills training at a young age, and doctors should also include social connectedness when screening their patients. She added that people not yet at retirement age should prepare for the social impact of retirement, and not just the financial side of things, as many adults derive their social connections from the office.

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