Loneliness is a major health risk, like obesity or smoking, and public health programs should address it in the same way, says a psychologist.
New research by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, found that social isolation contributes as strongly to mortality as does smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“This is something that we should all be taking seriously for our health,” she said.
Holt-Lunstad’s research, presented at a conference of the American Psychological Association, analyzed studies on mortality risk to find out how feelings of social isolation and loneliness compared to other risk factors. She found that it has a greater effect than obesity or exercise.
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Having few social connections is associated with various health effects, she said, such as cardiovascular problems, immune response, cognitive decline, and cellular aging, she said. But having other people around helps in other ways too: people are more likely to take their medication, to exercise, and to visit the doctor with encouragement from others.
“Our relationships help provide a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And that can translate to better self-care as well as less risk-taking,” said Holt-Lunstad.
It’s an important message at a time when more Canadians than ever are living alone – one of the risk factors examined by Holt-Lunstad in her research.
Census data shows that 28.2 per cent of Canadian adults lived alone in 2016 – the highest proportion since Confederation. And, for the first time, this was the most common household type in the country.
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This is partly due to Canada’s aging population, according to Statistics Canada, though more than one-in-10 Canadians under 60 also lives alone.
But everyone can feel the effects of loneliness, said Holt-Lunstad.
“We tend to assume that this is an issue that may be specific to older adults or the elderly, and while of course, that population is important to consider, it’s not isolated to that group,” she said.
“When we look across the data, this affects both men and women. We don’t see any effect in terms of it being stronger in older age and in fact, we have some evidence to suggest that it may be stronger in those under 65.”
Until the age of 60, men are more likely than women to live by themselves. This reverses after 60, likely due to men’s lower average life span, meaning there are lots of widowed women. More than half of women over 85 are living alone, according to census data.
A recent survey of seniors by the Canadian Association of Retired Persons found that more than 16 per cent of respondents reported lacking companionship. Fourteen per cent said they have nobody to talk to.
And another survey by the Vancouver Foundation in 2012 found that 25 per cent of residents of that city said they were alone more often than they would like to be.
Public health programs
Holt-Lunstad would like to see information about the effects of loneliness be included in public health programs in the same way information about the dangers of smoking or obesity is.
“I’ve heard people say things like, ‘You can’t put good relationships in the water.’ Or, ‘We can’t legislate that like we may be able to do with a Clean Air Act,’” she said. While that’s true, she believes people should prioritize their relationships in the same way that many have started to do with regular exercise.
“If we approach it as we can all be working on nurturing and fostering our own relationships, this may have a much broader population-wide impact.”
She also believes that research about the health impacts of loneliness should be included in medical training so that doctors can screen their patients for social isolation and provide information when needed. Kids should also learn about relationships the same way that they learn about nutrition, as a way to prevent future problems.
Holt-Lunstad’s research will be published next month in the journal The American Psychologist.