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Loneliness Rivals Obesity, Smoking as Health Risk

lonely woman

May 4, 2018 -- “The social media paradox”: Pop psychologists have coined the term to describe how social media have allowed us to become more connected to other people than at any time in history -- and yet many Americans report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before.

A new study out this month has thrown a spotlight on the emerging public health issue, suggesting Facebook and other Web-based communities -- as well as other things in modern life -- are boosting levels of loneliness that are undermining the nation’s mental and physical health.

The survey, conducted by the health insurer Cigna, found widespread loneliness, with nearly half of Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time. The nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.

In addition, 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well, and four in 10 reported they "lack companionship," their "relationships aren't meaningful" and they "are isolated from others."

Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached “epidemic” proportions, rivaling the risks posed by tobacco and the nation’s ever-expanding waistline.

“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” he said in releasing the report.

A Growing Threat?

Nemecek’s comments echo those of other prominent public health specialists, including former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, who say loneliness should be targeted in public health campaigns like those designed to combat smoking, boost immunizations, combat obesity, and prevent the spread of the AIDS virus.

“During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” Murthy said in a recent cover story in the Harvard Business Review.

“Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”

The new report, produced in partnership with the Ipsos polling company, is based on an online survey of more than 20,000 U.S. adults using the well-regarded UCLA Loneliness Scale to see how widespread loneliness is in America. Among other findings:

• Nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone (46%) or left out (47%).

• Widespread social media use among younger adults contributes to loneliness, but it's not the only reason.

• Loneliness is being fueled by a variety of things, including work demands, improper sleep schedules, not spending enough quality time with family or socializing with friends, and a lack of "me time."

Mental health experts say the Cigna study is only the latest in a series to document rising levels of loneliness and related public health effects.

Recent research has shown that people who are lonely and isolated are more likely to have heart disease and stroke, get immune system problems, and may even have a harder time recovering from cancer.

It’s also clear that loneliness is closely linked to depression and may lead to an early death.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a psychologist at Brigham Young University who studies loneliness and its health effects, has found loneliness makes premature death more likely for people of all ages.

In 2017, she presented new research linking loneliness and social isolation to a number of health risks at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention.

Her paper cited data from two analyses. The first tracked 148 studies, involving more 300,000 participants, and found that greater social connection is associated with 50% lower odds of early death. The second, involving 70 studies representing more than 3.4 million people, found that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone boosted the chance of premature death at least as much as obesity.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-Lunstad wrote. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase.”

She said 42.6 million Americans over age 45 have chronic loneliness, according to the AARP’s Loneliness Study. Specifically, the AARP study found that loneliness was good at predicting poor health, with those who rated their health as “excellent” about half as likely to be lonely as those who rated their health as “poor” (25% vs. 55%).

One reason that’s bad news for older Americans: More research has linked social isolation to a higher chance of having Alzheimer’s disease, which now strikes more than 5.7 million Americans -- a figure projected to triple by 2050.

The issue is gaining more attention as a serious public health concern. Earlier this year, British Prime Minister Theresa May went so far as to appoint a national minister for loneliness.

How to Feel Less Lonely

Arthur H. Brand, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Boca Raton, FL, said he is seeing the trend in his practice. Loneliness is not a clinical disorder, and it is different from more serious feelings of isolation and alienation, but it can be a sign of deeper psychological issues, he says.

“Loneliness is a feeling that may be transient,” he said. “Isolation/alienation is more of a condition that may be the result of chronic loneliness; withdrawal from relationships that can be self-imposed; and/or the result of rejection/shunning by others.”

So, what can be done to combat loneliness and social isolation?

Brand said face-to-face connection with others is the best remedy --through support groups, civic activities, adult education classes, social groups, volunteering, faith-based activities, political activism, book clubs, travel clubs, and even dating websites. All can all be useful ways to combat loneliness and isolation.

Joseph Burgo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the author of the blog "After Psychotherapy," says people have a basic need to feel a sense of “belonging.” But engaging with others through social media can undermine those feelings.

“Social media sharing focuses almost entirely on the best [experiences], with everyone trying to look like a social media ‘winner.’ Seeing all those fabulous parties, vacations, meals, etc. enjoyed by our ‘friends’ can make us feel terribly lonely,” he says.

Holt-Lunstad says the reach of the Web can also help drive solutions if it helps give rise to face-to-face interactions. Social media users -- particularly younger Americans -- should be encouraged to see digital communications as a way to connect with other people, not as a passive activity -- scrolling through feeds and posts by others.

The survey offers other tips to feel less lonely:

  • Reach balance: Getting the right amount of sleep, work, socializing with friends, family time, and “me time” is connected to lower loneliness scores.
  • Sleep: People who say they sleep just the right amount have lower loneliness scores.
  • Family time: People who report spending too much time with family are more likely to say that they feel as though they are part of a group of friends and they can find companionship when they need it.
  • Exercise: People who say they get just the right amount of exercise are less likely to be lonely.
  • Work: People who say they work just the right amount are least likely to be lonely.

WebMD Article Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 04, 2018

Sources

Cigna: “Survey of 20,000 Americans Examining Behaviors Driving Loneliness in the United States.”

Huffington Post: “The Social Media Paradox: Capturing Life at the Expense of Living it.”

Harvard Business Review: “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.”

University of California, Los Angeles: “Loneliness Scale.”

Heart, British Medical Journal: “Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies.”

PNAS: “Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation.”

Cancer: “Postdiagnosis social networks and breast cancer mortality in the After Breast Cancer Pooling Project.”

PLOS: “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review.”

AARP: “Loneliness Among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+.”

Alzheimer’s Association: “2018 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures.

The New York Times: “U.K. Appoints a Minister of Loneliness.”

Joseph Burgo, PhD, clinical psychologist; author, "After Psychotherapy" blog.

Arthur H. Brand, PhD, licensed psychologist, Boca Raton, FL.

News release, American Psychological Association.

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