New research says obesity is no longer the greatest public health hazard. This is.

In Politics & Society
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We are always warned to prepare for retirement. This usually means making sure that we have adequate financial resources for the day we’re no longer able to generate an income.

But one researcher says this is not enough. We must prepare for retirement socially as well.

Social isolation and loneliness may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity according to research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

Research shows that loneliness leads to increased risk of premature death. In fact, the research says loneliness is a greater health hazard than obesity and should be considered a serious threat to public health.

Social connection is crucial for our well being, and even for survival, yet millions of adults are suffering from chronic loneliness in America.

“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,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.

Holt-Lunstad presented data from two mega studies to illustrate the influence of social isolation and loneliness on the risk for early death.

Researchers at Brigham Young University, Utah looked at no less than 218 studies into the effects of social isolation and loneliness involving nearly 4 million people. They found that lonely people had a 50 percent increased risk of early death, compared to those who had good social connections. Obesity raises the chance of dying before the age of 70 by around 30 percent.

“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.

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. The fact that both marriage rates and birth rates have been dropping means a lot of people live on their own.

This is not only a problem for America.

“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,’” said Holt-Lunstad.

What can be done?

Holt-Lunstad made a number of recommendations. She suggested that:

  • Children receive social skills training in schools. This makes complete sense. Good interpersonal skills are crucial for satisfying social connections and success in business. Why not include social skills training in the school curriculum?
  • Doctors make social connection part of medical screening. Since recent research has shown that our emotional state can bring about physical illness, it make sense to routinely take note of a patient’s emotional state as well.
  • People prepare for retirement socially as well as financially, as many social ties are related to the workplace. This is a crucial point. The wider circle of friends and connections one can develop through life, the better chance you have of having some of those connections around when you retire.
  • Community planners should make sure to include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens.