By Robert Preidt
MONDAY, Aug. 7, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Loneliness may be more hazardous to your health than obesity -- and a growing number of Americans are at risk, researchers report.
About 42.6 million American adults over age 45 are believed to suffer from chronic loneliness, according to AARP.
"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need -- crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad. She is 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 Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA) in Washington, D.C.
Holt-Lunstad presented results of two large analyses. In one, researchers analyzed 148 studies that included a total of more than 300,000 people. Those studies linked greater social connection to a 50 percent lower risk of early death.
The researchers also reviewed 70 studies involving more than 3.4 million people to gauge the impact of social isolation, loneliness and living alone on the risk of premature death. The conclusion: The effect of the three was equal to or greater than well-known risk factors such as obesity.
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, according to U.S. Census data.
"These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness," Holt-Lunstad said in an APA news release.
She said 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," Holt-Lunstad said.
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.
Holt-Lunstad also suggested that community planners include spaces that encourage people to gather together, such as recreation centers and community gardens.
Research presented at medical meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.