Loneliness: The growing epidemic that could hurt your health

Loneliness: The growing epidemic that could hurt your health

Loneliness might feel like an individual’s problem, but some are calling it a growing epidemic.

In an effort to tackle the issue, British Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a minister for loneliness. A 2017 report said more than 9 million people in Britain often or always feel lonely, a phenomenon May called a “sad reality of modern life.” She said she wants to address the loneliness of the elderly and those who have no one to talk to.

This issue is not unique to Britain. A report by the Harvard Medical School said 25 to 60 percent of older Americans are affected by loneliness. But how harmful can it be?

Studies show emotional isolation is linked to serious health issues, like heart disease, dementia and arthritis. According to AARP, the health risk of loneliness is similar to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Last year, by analyzing studies that examined links between loneliness, social isolation and mortality, Brigham Young University researchers found that the risk of premature death was 50 percent lower for adults with greater social connections. In another analysis, they found that loneliness, isolation and living alone are associated with a level of early death on par with the risk posed by obesity.

Putting more resources into this issue, a co-author of the study said, is one way to combat it at the societal and the individual level. For example, more focus can be put on social skills training for children, and community planners should include spaces that encourage interaction.

As one researcher noted, it’s only a matter of time before loneliness turns into depression, and that’s where it gets dangerous.

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