Walk Along the Banks of the Seine near Asnieres

Health at Risk: Connected (or Not), Isolated, and Lonely

At the annual convention of the American Psychological Association Saturday, Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad warned that feeling lonely may surpass obesity as a health risk. She said:

Robust evidence suggests social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality. The magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators. 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 to do about it.

Untangling Obesity and Loneliness

Separate research, published this month in Eating Behaviors, demonstrates a close relationship between obesity and social withdrawal syndrome. The research found both low levels of trust and higher levels of loneliness in young people with obesity.

This idea is hardly new. Prior research found an association between obesity and loneliness. Researchers suggest that stigma might explain why this link exists. But cause and effect could easily work in the opposite direction. Loneliness can prompt emotional eating.

So untangling the relationship between obesity and loneliness is hardly simple.

Connecting Online: Contributing to the Problem or a Solution?

In a fascinating new essay, Mark Dunkelman describes a crisis of urban anonymity. Even in newly vibrant urban communities, people don’t talk to their neighbors. Citing data from the General Social Survey, he says the number of people who report socializing with neighbors is plummeting.

Could an increasing dependence upon electronic social media contribute? In young people, research by Brian Primack and colleagues suggests that possibility. They found a robust link between high social media use and feelings of social isolation. Of course, cause and effect remains an open question. Social media use might be a response to feelings of isolation. Or it might be a cause.

In older adults, researchers suggest that social media can offer help. A 2013 study found evidence that internet usage could reduce loneliness and increase social interactions. Their study focused on older adults in assisted and independent living facilities.

A Compelling Health Risk

Clearly, loneliness deserves attention as a health risk. The data on premature death is compelling. Loneliness can compound the harm of many health problems. But the link to obesity is hard to ignore.

Click here for Holt-Lunstad’s research on loneliness and mortality and here for further perspective from Medical News Today. For perspective on loneliness in America, click here.

Walk Along the Banks of the Seine near Asnieres, painting by Vincent van Gogh / WikiArt

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August 8, 2017

2 Responses to “Health at Risk: Connected (or Not), Isolated, and Lonely”

  1. August 08, 2017 at 8:28 am, Lizabeth said:

    Great article Ted! As we’ve discussed before, I feel from a personal POV that this is absolutely correct. Changing up my interactive patterns after periods of isolation is super important to self esteem and basic interest in ‘life stuff’. Currently, school is filling this void, but I’ll be looking to other opportunities like volunteering, etc. as I get farther into my programs.

    Thanks for all that you do – and for doing it every day! Hope to see you soon!


    • August 08, 2017 at 8:54 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Lizabeth! I’m glad this resonated and I’ll be eager to catch up on all the latest from you.