Loneliness: A Menace to Personal & Public Health

Loneliness is growing in epidemic proportions for Americans, meeting or exceeding the risks of obesity, smoking and other degenerative conditions, research tells us.

According to AARP, approximately 42.6 million American adults over age 45 appear to suffer from chronic loneliness.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need -- crucial to both well-being and survival,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.  “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly," she added during a presentation at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Census data reveals that more than one in four Americans lives alone, more than half are unmarried, and marriage rates and the number of children per household are declining.  "These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness," Dr. Holt-Lunstad said.

She stated there is strong evidence that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of early death more than many other factors.  "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."

Possible solutions, she said, include getting doctors to screen patients for social isolation, and training schoolchildren in social skills.  Older people should prepare for retirement socially as well as financially, she added, noting that many social ties are related to the workplace.

Dr. Holt-Lunstad also suggested that community planners include spaces that encourage people to gather together, such as recreation centers and community gardens.

Another source of isolation that we can remedy is our digital/virtual environment and the amount of focus we give it.  To bring more socialization into our lives, we must make a consistent effort to get out into our natural environment and develop social relationships with people around us.

 

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