Being lonely won't just make you feel sad—it may also endanger your life. In fact, researchers now say that people steeped in social isolation (including those who live by themselves) and a lack of connection with others can suffer just as much of a mortality risk as someone inhaling nearly a pack of cigarettes a day, and even more so than someone who's obese, Seeker reports. All of which leads Julianne Holt-Lunstad—a Brigham Young University psychology professor who presented these findings, also published in the PLOS ONE journal, at the American Psychological Association's convention on Saturday in DC—to stress that loneliness and isolation should be treated as public health issues. She says they could perhaps be partly remedied via initiatives such as teaching kids more social skills in school, or prepping seniors on how to keep their social lives active after they retire.
Holt-Lunstad's research was based on two meta-analyses. The first, comprised of 148 studies and nearly 300,000 subjects, found those who claimed better social connections also boasted a 50% lower risk of early demise—and poor social connectivity offered the same mortality risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The second grouping was made up of more than 3.4 million participants over 70 studies and found that social isolation (lack of actual contact with others), loneliness (the perception of feeling lonely, whether others are around or not), or simply living alone all carried more risk of premature death than obesity. "With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase," Holt-Lunstad notes. "Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge ... now is what can be done about it." (How loneliness and Alzheimer's may be linked.)