Loneliness is deadlier than obesity and should be considered a major public health hazard, that according to the biggest ever review into the problem.
Researchers in the US looked at 218 studies into the health effects of social isolation and loneliness involving nearly four million people. They discovered that lonely people had a 50 per cent increased risk of early death, compared to those with good social connections. In contrast, obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by around 30 per cent.
Lead author Dr Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Professor of Psychology at Brigham Young University, Utah, said people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, because for many people the workplace is their biggest source of companionship.
“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival,” she said.
“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.
“Yet an increasing portion of the population now experiences isolation regularly.”
According to the Campaign To End Loneliness, around 17 per cent of older people see friends, family and neighbours less than once a week, while one in 10 go for a month at a time without seeing any loved ones.
Two fifths of older people,
around 3.9 million,
view the television as
their main source of company.
“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,” added Dr Holt-Lunstad.
“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 can be done about it.”
A study by the University of York found that lonely people are around 30 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart disease, two of the leading causes of death in Britain.