The effects of loneliness on health are a critical public health problem

SUMMARY: Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. Across studies, social isolation odds increased the likelihood of mortality, respectively.  Among 18 to 25-year-olds, one in three (35%) reported feeling lonely three or more times a week. We also found that higher levels of loneliness increase a young adult’s risk of developing depression by 12% and social anxiety by 10%.

Anyone can experience loneliness and at any point in life but it’s often triggered by significant life events – both positive (such as new parenthood or a new job) and negative (bereavement, separation or health problems).

More than one-fifth of adults in both the United States and Britain said in a 2018 survey that they often or always feel lonely. More than half of American adults are unmarried, and researchers have found that even among those who are married, 30 percent of relationships are severely strained. A quarter of Americans now live alone, and as the song says, one is the loneliest number.

Loneliness is bad for our physical and mental health. Over a six-month period, people who are lonely are more likely to experience higher rates of depression, social anxiety, and paranoia. Being socially anxious can also lead to more loneliness at a later time.

Social isolation is more lethal than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or than obesity, according to research published by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University. Since obesity is associated in the United States with 300,000 to 600,000 deaths a year, the implication is that loneliness is a huge, if silent, killer.

Loneliness increases inflammation, heart disease, dementia, and death rates, researchers say — but it also simply makes us heartsick and leaves us inhabiting an Edvard Munch canvas. Public health experts in many countries are debating how to address a “loneliness epidemic” that corrodes modern life, but Britain has taken the lead: Last year it appointed a minister for loneliness.

Loneliness affects physical health in two ways. First, it produces stress hormones that can lead to inflammation and other health problems. Second, people who are alone are less likely to go to doctor appointments, to take medicine or to exercise and eat a healthy diet. We may resent nagging from loved ones, but it can keep us alive.

An effort to quantify the cost of loneliness in the US also found that among Americans aged 65 or older, social isolation costs the US government nearly $7 billion in additional health care costs per year.

Treat the person, not the health problem

So how can our broken healthcare system address this issue?

1ne: Treat the person, not just the health condition. HCP’s need to ask people about their social lives and ensure that they are not experiencing social isolation.

2wo: Employers need a guide yo help them identify risk factors for social isolation such as employees who seem to be working during off-hours.

3hree: Insurers also need to address loneliness through a broad educational program.

There are no quick fixes for loneliness, no Rx’s. As younger, working Millennials start to enter the problems of caregiving and losing relatives to old age and diseases loneliness could become more pronounced. If we stand by and do nothing ALL of us will suffer but that’s nothing compared to the suffering of coming home to an empty house.