Obesity-related illness has become a leading cause of death worldwide, and with 58% of women and 68% of men in the UK now classified as overweight or obese, the threat is growing.
But researchers now claim that, despite the accelerated prevalence of obesity, a “loneliness epidemic” in western societies could actually be a more urgent threat to public health.
The team from the American Psychological Association found that cultural shifts in recent years mean people are increasingly lonely and isolated, and this is starting to have an impact on our physical wellbeing.
Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad said: “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival.
“Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,”
Approximately 42.6 million adults over age 45 in the United States are estimated to be suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP’s loneliness study.
Holt-Lunstad partially attributes this to social factors such as 25% of the population living alone, and more than 50% of people being unmarried.
And not only is this worrying for mental health, the impacts of loneliness manifest physically too - Holt-Lunstad cites two studies (that combined have studied the impact of this phenomenon on nearly 4,000,000 people worldwide) which show loneliness increases risk of death.
The first study found that greater social connection is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death, and the second found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone had a significant and equal effect on the risk of premature death, one that was equal to or exceeded the effect of other well-accepted risk factors such as obesity.
In 2016 HuffPost also reported on a study that found supportive relationships, not greater economic resources, increased longevity for married cancer patients.
“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” said Holt-Lunstad.
And this isn’t only a problem short-term, as the population ages this will be exacerbated.
Holt-Lunstad wants the study to prompt governments to reflect on what can be done to decrease loneliness, and place greater priority on resources to tackle it
For instance, teaching social skills to children in schools and doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening, she said.
Additionally, people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, for example, choosing to live somewhere with access to recreation centers and community gardens.