With more people living alone and longer, and many of us over-reliant on the Internet for human interaction, loneliness is on the rise. Defined as the gap between our “preferred and actual social relations,” loneliness now affects 40% of the population, up from 11%–17% in the 1970s, according to estimates.
That increase has real health consequences. Studies compare the impact of loneliness to smoking, alcohol abuse, or obesity, because lonely people are more prone to serious disease and suicidal behavior. Loneliness is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s, stroke, and high blood pressure, among other things.
“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,” says Tim Smith, co-author of a new review of studies investigating the line between loneliness and health. “With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future.”
In all, the review covered three million people across studies of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone. Not surprisingly, older people face the greatest mortality risk. But loneliness is in fact a better predictive factor for people under 65. In other words, if you’re lonely in your thirties, you may not die immediately but it could contribute to a shortening of years later on.
The good news is that the opposite is true. When people make regular, good-quality human contact, their risk decreases. “In essence, the study is saying the more positive psychology we have in our world, the better we’re able to function not just emotionally but physically,” says Smith, who teaches at Brigham Young University.
The review is published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science. A separate study in the same issue looks at interventions to reduce loneliness, treating it like any other public health emergency.
These include befriending, mentoring and group therapy initiatives, teaching people to improve their social skills, and even drugs (like oxytocin) to help people get over their shyness and make new friends. The paper says some combination of social and drug treatment could help, though it seems questionable. For one, loneliness is not simply the absence of contact; it’s the absence of contact with people you love and trust and who love and trust you back. That’s not easy to find. As for the drug approach, that seems like a case of turning a social problem into a market opportunity for Big Pharma.
Whatever the solution, though, there needs to be more acceptance of the problem. “As a first step, there is a need for increased public awareness–and awareness among health care providers–that loneliness is a condition that, like chronic pain, can become an affliction for almost anyone,” the second study says.
“Despite the fact that loneliness is a common emotional distress syndrome with a high risk factor for early mortality and a broad variety of physical health and psychiatric issues, it still gets little attention in medical training or in health care more generally.”