Loneliness Poses Greater Public Health Threat than Obesity

A new press release by the American Psychological Association warns the loneliness epidemic now represents a threat to public health that exceeds that of obesity.

Before getting into the specifics of the release we need to have a clear understanding of what loneliness is (and what it isn’t). Loneliness is defined subjectively not objectively. In other words, what matters is not how many friends you have or how many people you have around you on a daily basis. Rather, what matters is whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from others. Indeed, many people who are married and live with family members report feeling significant loneliness because they feel emotionally disconnected from their partners and loved ones.

The press release summarized research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association and was focused primarily on social disconnection. They report that over 42 million adults over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness in the U.S. and warn that number is likely to grow because of an aging population.

In previous articles (e.g., 10 Surprising Facts about Loneliness), I discussed the specific health risks associated with loneliness and that scientists believed chronic loneliness represented as great a risk to our long-term health and longevity as cigarette smoking. Now it is being compared to obesity.

The most tragic and compelling about the medical threat the loneliness epidemic poses is how preventable it is. The problem is a fundamental lack of awareness both for lonely people and for those around them. It isn’t easy to approach a friend or loved one and express concerns about their smoking habits or their obesity but many of us do so regardless. But how many of us have approached a friend or loved one to discuss our concerns about their loneliness?

The public dialogue about the dangers of smoking and of obesity has been going on for decades. People who smoke and those who struggle with obesity are aware they are risking their health and longevity. But lonely people are largely unaware of these dangers as are their friends and loved ones.

Consider also, that when a loved one smokes or struggles with obesity, there is nothing we can do to help them other than urge them to change their habits and lifestyle. But when it comes to loneliness, we can actually be the solution! We can reach out, call, visit, and include them in activities and get-togethers. We can initiate deeper and more meaningful conversations and make them feel seen and loved.

Indeed, one of the studies cited in the press release found that having stronger and deeper social connections was associated with a 50% drop in risk of early mortality.

Solutions need to come from within our neighborhoods and communities as well. Local municipalities and neighborhood associations could organize activities for retired persons, schools can require students to conduct house visits with homebound people or those with limited mobility, the options for interventions are numerous.

The loneliness epidemic isn’t going away. And unlike smoking and obesity, increased awareness, a more robust public discussion, and local efforts can have a huge impact on prevention. It is up to us to make that happen.

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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