Scientists Uncover a Silent Killer: Loneliness

By May 31, 2018Blog

There are not many things in this world that people would rather admit to than admit that they are lonely. There is so much shame and stigma surrounding the topic of loneliness. Perhaps for that reason, many people are and remain lonely. And the impact of the loneliness can actually be very severe.

Nearly Half of Americans are Lonely

Scientists have recently been studying the affects of loneliness. But a nationwide survey reported just this month in May, 2018 illustrates just how lonely people in the United States truly feel.

Cigna, a health insurance company, conducted the survey reaching out to 20,000 adults online throughout the country. They used the UCLA Loneliness Scale, a tool that asks a series of statements and then formulates a loneliness score based on the responses to those statements. On the scale, respondents can score between 20 and 80 with any score above 43 being considered lonely. The higher the score, the lonelier a person is.

The average score that the survey found for Americans was 44, which indicates that “most Americans are considered lonely.”

Astoundingly, it found that nearly 50% of Americans responded that they feel alone or left out always or sometimes. And 54% of respondents said that they always or sometimes feel that no one knows them well.

The survey also revealed that 56% of Americans feel that people around them “are not necessarily with them.” Additionally, 2 out of 5 respondents reported that they “lack companionship”, that their “relationships aren’t meaningful”, and that they “are isolated from others.”

Even the CEO of Cigna Corp., David Cordani, was surprised by the findings: “Half of Americans view themselves as lonely. I can’t help but be surprised [by that].”

If you’re starting to think that this problem is due to a growing baby boomer population, you may be surprised to learn that the younger the respondent, the more likely to be lonely.

Respondents within the age range of Generation Z (born between the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s) received an average loneliness score of 48.3. Millennials, the slightly older generation received a score of 45.3 on the loneliness scale. Baby boomers scored 42.4 and the Greatest Generation, people age 72 or above, scored 38.6.

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, studies loneliness and the health effects associated with it.

“Too often people think that this [problem] is specific to older adults,” Holt-Lunstad said, “This report helps with the recognition that this can affect those at younger ages.”

Unlike other studies, this report showed no correlation with loneliness and social media usage. However, it did show that people who said they have more in-person social interactions on a daily basis were also less lonely.

Additionally, respondents who worked too little or too much also experienced loneliness, which indicates that the workplace is a significant source of social interaction in our lives.

Loneliness is not just a fleeting moment of sadness or an inconvenient feeling that lasts a few hours. Loneliness has very real, life-threatening affects.

Loneliness Can Shorten Life

You may be surprised to learn that loneliness can actually kill.

“We have robust evidence that it increases risk for premature mortality,” Holt-Lunstad said. And the evidence is mounting.

In 2014, a study found that loneliness is more likely to cause premature death than obesity! Compared to an average person, people who reported being lonely had a 14% greater risk of dying, which is about twice the likelihood of an early death from obesity.

And in 2015, a study from Bringham Young University (BYU) found that there is a 26% increased likelihood of death for those who feel lonely and a 29% increased likelihood for death for those who have actual social isolation.

Co-author of the study and BYU professor, Tim Smith, stated: “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,” Smith said.

Additional studies on loneliness have found that loneliness can be as damaging to health as being an alcoholic or smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness can increase the chances for high blood pressure. Loneliness is a risk factor for cognitive decline. Loneliness is a risk factor for stroke and coronary heart disease.

In fact, in a Senate hearing, Republican Senator Susan Collins from Maine said, “Isolation and loneliness are associated with higher rates of heart disease, a weakened immune system, more depression and anxiety, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and nursing home admissions.”

Warding Off Loneliness

Loneliness is as dangerous as a smoking addiction or obesity, but in some ways, preventing and warding off loneliness is much more difficult.

Jennifer Caudle, an osteopathic family physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine says, loneliness “can feel devastating.”

To those who feel completely lost or overwhelmed by loneliness, she recommends talking to a doctor.

“If you are worried about how you feel and you can’t conquer this on your own, that’s your signal to reach out for help,” she says. “If you feel lonely, it’s OK. You are not alone. And there are things we can do about this.”

Connect 2 Affect is a non-profit committed to ending social isolation. Their website writes, “Isolation is more than being alone. It’s the result of feeling detached physically or psychologically, or being disconnected from support groups of family, friends and community.”

Connect 2 Affect is sponsored by the AARP Foundation and focuses mainly on older generations. They provide resources for opportunities to get involved with your community, live closer to other individuals and interact more with caretakers, meal providers, and more.

However, for people of a younger demographic who still experience loneliness (at even higher rates), the solution is not so straightforward.

Psychology Today recommends the following four steps: improving social skills, enhancing social support, increasing opportunities for social interaction, and changing maladaptive thinking.

If you are experiencing loneliness, check out this article and do not be afraid to reach out to someone for help. Ask a doctor or call the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741.

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