How loneliness could be killing us

It’s safe to say we all know the lifestyle factors that ensure a long and healthy life: exercise regularly, eat well, don’t smoke, drink alcohol sparingly, get regular check ups.

But are you protected against what some experts are predicting could be the next epidemic?

Research from Brigham Young University has shown that loneliness and social isolation are just as much a threat to longevity as obesity.

“Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we’re at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet,” said Tim Smith, co-author of the American study.

“With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future,” he told a psychology publication.

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Loneliness or social isolation can look very different depending on the person affected.

For some, it’s a case of being surrounded by people but having no one with whom you really “click”. No one you feel you can really talk to or could turn to in a crisis.

Meanwhile, other lonely people may say they prefer keeping to themselves. Which is fine… until it isn’t. Enjoying one’s own company is one thing, being isolated from others for prolonged periods is simply bad for your health.

Studies have shown that humans – who are essentially social animals – feel social pain as acutely as more tangible forms. Feeling lonely activates the same parts of the brain as physical pain, triggering associated stress hormones.

In the Brigham Young study, which was published in May, researchers analysed data from more than three million participants taken from a variety of sources.

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Taking into account socioeconomic status, age, gender, and pre-existing health conditions, they found that the absence or presence of social support had a prominent effect on people’s health.

Prior research from the same authors pitched the impact on mortality from loneliness at the same level as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic.

“The effect of [loneliness] is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the lead study author. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.”

So how many of us are actually suffering from this condition, and how can we find a way out of loneliness?

According to a 2012 Australia Institute report, one in three Australians is suffering from loneliness, and social researcher Hugh Mackay calls it the “global warming of demographics.

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“We saw it coming, we know what the causes are but it’s very hard to counteract,” he told the Australian Women’s Weekly.

By 2030, it’s expected that one in three households will be home to just one person. And it’s no coincidence that number matches the number of lonely people out there. Living alone is one of the highest risk factors for feeling isolated in a fast paced society where it’s more common for families to live apart.

A social worker who sees plenty of lonely people told The Weekly that they often take it personally, thinking people don’t like them and that’s why they are alone. Many have moved away from their community to be closer to their adult children, only to find they have lost their social support network and their kids and grandkids don’t fill the void.

There are various ways to combat loneliness but for people who are trapped in a spiral of isolation and its common bedfellow depression, it’s a matter of taking the plunge and putting oneself “out there”, which can be confronting.

Volunteering, community clubs, choirs and other groups are all ways to make new friends, while other suggestions are getting a pet and talking to strangers you see out and about.

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As with any great health risk, of course, the best course of action is prevention: making the effort to maintain friendships, reaching out to family members and showing up uninvited sometimes.

Tell us, are you one of the many people who feels lonely? What barriers do you face to social connection? And for those who have overcome loneliness, what advice do you have to give?