People in rich countries are dying of loneliness

Missed connections.
Missed connections.
Image: Reuters/Marcelo del Pozo
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Sociologists have long been warning about the dangers of increased isolation thanks to aging populations, scattered families, and cultures that promote the individual over the collective. Now, new research analyzing previous studies suggests people who fall into the loneliness trap are 50% more likely to suffer an early death than those who remain socially connected.

Previous studies have found that as many as a third of Americans are lonely, and that 18% of UK adults felt lonely “always” or “often” (pdf). The latest research, which collated studies in two meta-analyses, connected the issue of isolation to health and specifically to premature death.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Utah, presented the meta studies at a meeting of the American Psychological Association last week. The first, which involved 148 studies representing more 300,000 participants, found that greater social connection was associated with a 50% reduced risk of dying early.

A second meta-analysis took in 70 studies, representing 3.4 million people from the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. It found that the effect of isolation, loneliness, and living alone had an effect on the risk of dying younger equal to that of obesity.

“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,’” Holt-Lunstad said in a press release. The research is forthcoming in the journal American Psychologist. Holt-Lunstad also presented her findings (pdf) to the US Senate Aging Committee in April 2017.

Such “epidemics,” while not confined to rich countries, are linked to prominent features of affluent culture: longer life expectancy, decreasing marriage rates, people having fewer children, more people getting divorced, and more people living alone. In January, UK lawmakers set up a commission to tackle loneliness—inspired by the murder of Jo Cox, a member of parliament who was passionate about the issue—which is now working with a range of charities focused on at-risk groups including the elderly, refugees, young people, and new parents.

Holt-Lunstad suggested some ways to tackle the problem of increased early mortality: People should prepare for retirement socially as well as financially, she said, because so many social ties are now connected to the workplace. Designers and planners could also play a role, by ensuring communities have social space like gardens, to encourage gathering and interaction.