Most of us know by now that eating well, getting regular exercise, and minimizing bad habits like smoking and drinking can all contribute to longer, healthier lives. But there’s an emerging lifestyle factor, one that you likely haven’t considered, that may actually be harder on your health:

Loneliness.

Over 100 studies have found that being lonely and socially isolated is linked to a full 26% increase in risk of death, making the resulting danger to your health similar or greater than that of being overweight.

Current research estimates that chronic loneliness affects 42.6 million people over the age of 45 in the US, with younger demographics also suffering.

Of course, human beings are not designed to be solitary; we evolved to survive in tribes, and the need for interaction with other humans is primal. In fact, when we are lacking this social connection, it triggers survival alarm bells in our bodies just as a lack of food and water would do. It’s also bad for our mental health, increasing the likelihood of depression and other affective disorders.

Professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad says of the study results:

“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.

Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”

As marriage rates in the developed countries continue to decline, this means an ever increasing number of adults now live alone.

Combining results of the studies conducted on individuals all over the world, including North America, Europe, Australia and Asia, Professor Holt-Lunstad explained the health findings:

“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.  

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’. 

The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

Because prolonged isolation can make us hesitant and even fearful of reaching out to connect with others, it’s vitally important for our health that we resist this tendency and instead make the effort to start conversations, join groups (in-person where possible), and maintain healthy relationships.

This may prove more beneficial for our long-term health and happiness than a diet or exercise plan.

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You might also enjoy:

Feeling Rejected? Take the Opportunity to Feel Good.

The Importance of Communication Skills (Top 10 Studies)

Sources:

http://www.spring.org.uk/2017/08/epidemic.php

http://fortune.com/2016/06/22/loneliness-is-a-modern-day-epidemic/