Social Isolation, Obesity, and Health

Social isolation — loneliness — is pretty well established as a risk factor for poor health and a shorter life. Isolation is also linked to obesity — both as a complication of obesity and a potential trigger for obesity. In fact, health, social isolation, and obesity are so tightly bound together that separating cause and effect is a daunting challenge.

The health risks of social isolation garnered much attention this week through an essay written by Jessica Olien for Slate. The headline proclaimed “Social isolation kills more people than obesity does — and it’s just as stigmatized.” (It’s interesting to see a marginalized condition pegged to obesity to assert its legitimacy.)

The health effects of social isolation have been studied for some time now. The assertion that isolation carries a risk of shorter life that’s comparable to smoking or excessive drinking has been validated in studies for two decades.

Likewise it’s pretty clear that weight bias and discrimination leads to social isolation for people with obesity, particularly children with severe obesity who encounter well-documented bullying in school. As a result, adolescents with obesity complete significantly fewer years of school or may seek alternatives such as home schooling.

More recently, research is pointing to mechanisms by which social isolation can affect health and obesity. A recent study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior used NHANES data to examine the role of chronic inflammation in the link between social isolation and early death. They found a link for inflammation that was especially strong when considering high-risk fibrinogen levels and cumulative inflammation burdens. They also found a heightened inflammatory response to isolation in men. Other researchers point to mechanisms related to adrenal hormones and the sympathetic nervous system to explain a potential mechanism for social isolation to increase the risk of obesity.

Overall, a close relationship between obesity, social isolation, and health is increasingly clear. Much work remains to discern cause and effect in this relationship.

Click here to read the essay in Slate, click here to read an analysis of social isolation and mortality in PLOS Medicine, click here for the study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, and click here and here for publications about potential mechanisms for the link between isolation and obesity.

Alone, photograph © Sippanont Samchai / flickr

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