For years America has been talking about the obesity epidemic, but a new study points to a more serious health issue that could reach epidemic proportions by 2030: isolation and loneliness.
Researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah reviewed nearly 35 years of data from about 3 million participants and discovered that loneliness and isolation can impact our health, and even shorten our lives, just like obesity.
"We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously," said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the study's lead author. "The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously."
The study looked at both objective and subjective social isolation, meaning that it didn't distinguish between voluntary isolation (like living alone or those who just enjoy their alone time) and involuntary isolation (a person who describes himself as lonely). The researchers found that those who live alone, have infrequent social contact, and have few social network ties are all at risk for premature mortality. This was especially true for those younger than 65.
"In light of mounting evidence that social isolation and loneliness are increasing in society, it seems prudent to add social isolation and loneliness to lists of public health concerns," say the study's authors. "The professional literature and public health initiatives can accord social isolation and loneliness greater recognition."
Other items on the list of public safety concerns? Substance abuse, obesity, mental health and responsible sexual behavior, to name a few.
Co-author Tim Smith said of the findings, "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. With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future."
The study notes that affluent nations have the highest rates of people living alone. Those rates are projected to increase.
There is a wealth of data that ties current lifestyles and pastimes to isolation. With an increasing number of people working from home, binge-watching television or nursing an addiction to electronic devices, it has become too easy to be alone, even if that's not a person's intention. Modern day conveniences like having anything we want delivered make it possible to never need to leave the house.
A 2013 study found similar results looking at 6,500 elderly men and women in England. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed that those who are socially isolated are more likely to die prematurely.