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Is loneliness life-threatening?

New research shows loneliness is a bigger threat to health than obesity

Heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity and arthritis are some of the most common and preventable of all health problems, but new research suggests there may be a new ailment to add to the list: loneliness.

According to a recent study by Brigham Young University, loneliness and social isolation are a larger threat to longevity than obesity. Previous research from Holt-Lunstand and Smith puts the heightened risk of mortality from loneliness in the same category as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.

“We don’t know how the connection works exactly, but we have been aware that what’s going on in our mind affects our body,” said Dr. Donna J. Carmosky of Novant Health UVA Health System Northern Virginia Psychiatric Associates in Manassas, Virginia, who was not involved in the study.

People who are chronically lonely often experience difficulty sleeping, increased anxiety, increased stress levels and elevated blood pressure.

The Brigham Young study found that the association between loneliness and the risk for mortality among young populations is actually greater than among older populations. It also found that the effect of social isolation on health is the same even when participants choose to isolate themselves because of personal preference.

Am I at risk?

It’s normal to feel lonely sometimes, but the fact that reportedly more Americans are living alone and our increasing dependence on technology may be contributing to chronic loneliness.

“Many people feel that they are getting adequate social interaction because they socialize with friends and family through technology, but you can’t replace the human connection,” Carmosky said. “Even when you are physically around people, you can still feel lonely if those connections aren’t meaningful.”

I’m lonely. What can I do?

To start, try taking a break from your devices or limiting the time you use them during the day. Be especially conscious to put technology away during social interactions and be present when you are with others.

If you think you’re battling chronic loneliness, Carmosky suggested finding a community that shares your values.

“Whether it’s through a community organization, your school, your place of worship, or a hobby you enjoy, the quality of the interactions is important,” she said. “Just being around people isn’t enough – you want to make meaningful connections.”

If you already have a social group that you’re regularly involved with and you still feel lonely, Carmosky recommended seeing a counselor. 

“Everyone has a special talent, passion, or interest that helps them feel fulfilled in their lives, and a counselor can help you find yours,” she said. “However, if your loneliness is so pervasive that it’s interfering with your life, you may be struggling with a psychiatric disorder like depression.”

Carmosky said to consider these questions when determining if feelings of loneliness are more serious than just the occasional blues:

  • Have I felt down more than usual in the past two weeks or longer?
  • Have I lost interest in things I usually enjoy?
  • Do my feelings of loneliness interfere with the basic functions of my life, such as performing at my job or school?
  • Have my friends and family noticed a significant change in my mood or demeanor?
  • Have my patterns of eating and sleeping changed?
  • Do I feel hopeless about life or worthless about myself?
  • Do I think about death?

Answering “yes” to any of the above questions may mean that you have depression, a medical disorder that can be treated by a psychiatrist, a physician who specializes in treating depression and other disorders. A psychiatrist can prescribe medication if appropriate. 

To find a certified counselor in your area, visit the National Board for Certified Counselors online directory at nbcc.org.

Learn about behavioral health services offered by Novant Health UVA Health System here.

Published: 6/10/2015