homeless-e131b40828_640You may think the greatest health risk is drinking or smoking to excess. It turns out, according to recent research, that loneliness and social isolation may have an equally negative impact on health, causing problems including high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, cognitive decline and a shortened lifespan.

A new study at the University of York discovered that people who are isolated or lonely have a 29% higher risk for heart disease and a 32% higher risk for stroke when compared with their a control group of subjects who had a strong social network. This massive research combined data from 23 studies that considered more than 180,000 adults living in high-income countries in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

These studies analyzed the degree of isolation and loneliness among all participants and monitored them between the ages of three and 21 years to see whether they developed heart diseases, such as a heart attack, or suffered a stroke.

There are many ways that being lonely and isolated can negatively affect health as well as a number of diseases, including heart conditions. For example, isolated people may suffer from bad nutrition, deficient exercise, and poor sleep. Isolation is also linked with high blood pressure, greater stress and other risk factors. “Being alone, or feeling like you are alone, probably increases the risk of many diseases by about 30%,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University noted in an editorial in the journal, Heart.

Loneliness and isolation also appear to shorten a person’s lifespan, according to a previous study by Holt-Lunstad and colleagues. The study found that people with the fewest relationships, or who felt lonely and unsupported, had a 50% higher risk of dying during the study period than those who were well-connected.

Social isolation also appears to be related to suicide as well as to the rise in mass killings in the United States. Indeed both mass killing and suicides are on the rise. Suicide rates have soared 24 percent in the U.S. since 1999, with the biggest increases among white and native-American women. A recent study indicated that there had been more mass shooting incidents and deaths in the 11 years starting with 2005 than there were in the previous 23 years combined.

The underlying question is, why are Americans becoming more isolated? It appears that countries that are rated high on such factors of quality of life and community spirit tend to be less isolated. In such countries, there is a greater acceptance of each individual and each individual’s flaws. Countries rated low on the same factors tend to be more isolated, perhaps because of less acceptance and more judgments of others, which creates more distance, more isolation and more loneliness.

One of my clients, from abroad, complained to me recently that in America, especially in cities such as New York, people were always in a hurry and nobody seemed to have much time for a social life. In his country people are more laid back. “I have a big extended family,” he told me. “At home I get together every weekend and sometimes on weeknights with relatives and friends and we all support and accept each other and everybody knows what everybody is doing. There’s a sense of community. In New York there’s no sense of community.”

Extended families in America seem to be a thing of the past. Single-parent families are on the rise. One of the largest shifts in family structure is that 34% of children today are living with an unmarried parent. Work and careers seem to be the number one priority for Americans, at least in cities like New York, not their personal lives or socializing. Alienation has become normal. People are more concerned with getting ahead, with doing well in comparison to others, and with feeling economically ahead. We are polarized by religion, politics, race, sex and economics. All of this leads to more isolation and more loneliness.

Is it possible for Americans to become less isolated and lonely? It seems possible, but not likely. In order to accomplish this, American values would have to undergo a radical change. “Americans don’t value community and togetherness,” noted my client. “They value independence and careers.” The emphasis on independence has deep roots in American culture, going back to our roots, when we fought for independence from Britain. This independent nature may have served us well then, but may not be serving us well now.

“In our country we have an attitude of ‘We’re all in this together,’ but in America it seems to be every man for himself,” my foreign-born client said. “Americans need to look for common interests, similarities and respect for differences, rather than creating distance by focusing on differences.”