Loneliness a Major Health Risk

"Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism." — Robert Waldinger
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When it comes to living a long and healthy life, we often turn to diet and exercise to increase our longevity. Neglecting the quality of our social relations, we look for magic-pill solutions to postpone our physical decline.

Although physical health has received a great deal of attention recently, spawning a massive industry around diet and exercise, it turns out we might be better off focusing on our social health. Recent research looked at the impact of loneliness as a risk factor for mortality and found:

Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity.

The researchers also found loneliness is comparable to other health indicators, including substance abuse, responsible sexual behavior, mental health, injury and violence, environmental quality, immunization, and access to health care.

Although studies are now mounting regarding the risk of social isolation, it is a relatively neglected issue. The researchers note:

The current status of research on the risks of loneliness and social isolation is similar to that of research on obesity 3 decades ago.

Luckily, sociology is often incorporated into medical school training, giving clinicians an understanding of how our bodies, minds, and social environments are interrelated. There has been progress in this regard, but in practice, physicians often emphasize the biological component at the expense of the psychological and the social.

If we want to understand human thriving, the social component is essential. According to an 80 year long Harvard study that followed a group of individuals since their college years, the quality of our close social relations is the best predictor of health and happiness:

…people’s level of satisfaction with their relationships at age 50 was a better predictor of physical health than their cholesterol levels were.

In a TED Talk on the study, Robert Waldinger emphasizes the dangers of social isolation, stating:

Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.

This is all the more concerning, given the increasing rates of social isolation in affluent societies, particularly among the aging population. Modern conveniences allow us to live more independently than ever, but we need to consider the costs to our mental and physical health. We need to consider the health of our communities.

I use the term ‘social health’ because our societies are living organisms. Like a physical organism, social life can develop pathological characteristics, resulting in damage to the individual parts that make up the organism. Although loneliness is experienced as a personal problem, it is connected to larger public issues.

If you’ve been following my work up to this point, you will notice this is the central issue I’ve been discussing, particularly in relation to veterans issues, and more recently, addiction and social media.

To reflect this central focus, you may notice I’ve made some blog name and design updates. Feel free to check out the new homepage, as well.

As always, I greatly appreciate your thoughts and feedback in the comments section. Thanks for reading!

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  1. It’s really sad that this isn’t more well known. Physical health is so so beneficial, but if your heart and mind aren’t being fed, you will never be healthy. It’s crazy the affect stress can have on the body– can cause all sorts of problems, even cancer! We need to take more of a priority in taking care of our mind.

  2. This was a great read! It is so true that many millennials (& younger) would rather hang out behind a screen than have face to face social interactions. I’m a millennial, myself, and notice it among my peers. Now time to go grab dinner with some friends..

  3. I think mental health has a lot to do with healthy living..and the loneliness often draws you into this depression which could then end up being unable to maintain a healthy mindset 😦 great post!

  4. This is a fantastic post. I find that this is becoming a big issue with university students, especially international students. They are often suffering silently yet are able to come to class and maintain a happy face. Sometimes being surrounded by people can enhance the reality of your loneliness. Despite being quite a sociable person, at university I found that it is so easy to slip through the cracks in the crowds. It is important for universities to recognise the lonely environments that students can exist in and be able to create hubs for them to seek truly engaging social experiences.

  5. Super pertinent in our day and age. I find that we, as a species, are becoming more and more isolationist. The irony is that this is despite modern technology supposedly connecting people from all over the world at the touch of a button, because, instead of actually going out there, socialising and actually speaking to each other, the tendency is to stare at screen and send text messages.
    Great article and thank you.

  6. As a stay at home mom I have suffered with loneliness periodically. It seems to hurt my mental health! Luckily I have made more close friends.

  7. Social isolation began when internet was improved.
    Now every time I go on a sociel website I find people who say they are bored and lonely.
    People stay at home all the time. They don’t go out.
    Once wewalked in the square of our town and we spent all the time there.
    We talked, we loved, we knew each other.
    But now time is all spending at home and people think they will find love on the web but it’s not true.
    All people who sarch for friends and love on the web after a little time they get depressed.

  8. I feel like loneliness only lies within yourself and no one else can fix it, but until you learn to handle and enjoy yourself in the present moment you will not feel the need for anyone else to fill your emptiness inside, it’s not a group effort
    You are your own hero

  9. If it’s not a choice, then I agree that being alone can be a problem. Some people have the same negative result if they are around others when they long for isolation/aloneness. When anything is forced it doesn’t usually turn out well.

  10. In the backstory for an article on the Alaskan tundra in National Geographic, the photographer reported a chance encounter in the wild with an Inuit elder. The photographer observed that his inspiration was that many urban friends had come to trek in the tundra. The elder replied, “Yes, they are lonely.”

    In “The Lost Language of Plants,” Stephen Buhner reflects upon his experiences teaching urbanites how to grow plants in their apartments. Many of them reported it as a transformative experience in healing their sense of disconnection.

    Leading to this: my sense is that loneliness is a psychical condition suffered by gentler (or wounded?) personalities surrounded by thunderous projections of “Me! Mine!”

    As a corollary, I’d be curious whether certain ritual practices help protect isolates from loneliness – for example a Muslim maintaining the prayer schedule.

    1. Thank you for sharing these insights. Egoistic social contexts contribute to this sense of disconnection. I do think religious beliefs and practices can protect against loneliness. Not only are religious beliefs and practices social constructions that connect an individual to a tradition, but like gardening, it connects the individual to something beyond themselves.

  11. Steve: Great post and I do believe the issue of loneliness and social isolation are quite relevant to military veterans; particularly, but not exclusively, for those who have been medically released. Despite public campaigns, mental diagnoses continue to be very stigmatizing for veterans and their families. Most of them will not admit to feeling lonely but in my experience the role of therapists (beyond our official roles of focusing on evidence-based treatment of mental symptoms) often amounts to serving as their main social contacts – people who do not judge them, work to connect with them, and care about them. No matter how else we describe it, I believe that helpers of all types engage in a primary overarching task – connecting with people who are cut off from intimate contact with others. Thanks.

  12. There is an increasing trend in japan where individuals never leave their homes. They’ve named it as Hikikomori – Modern day recluse. Your article immediately reminded me of it. You’ve highlighted some very pertinent points.

  13. After nearly a year of social Hell (Isolation), I can gladly, and voluntarily say…,”Been there, done that, not looking back…”…

    Things have gotten immensely better, and there is light at the end of the tunnel (so to speak), and it’s no train.

    By the way,…

    Hi Steve, nice to meet you. Have a joke: “My Lord, the peasants are revolting….”… “Of course, I know they smell.”

  14. Loneliness may be a reason people spend so much time in doctors’ offices. It does seem current lifestyles lead to loneliness. Private automobiles instead of public transportation. Single-family houses. Decline of churches, social clubs, community gathering places. Private offices. Television also isolates, as it represents a built-in companionship substitute for so many. I wonder if social media is an adaptation that grew out of simultaneous desires for relationship but fear of too much intimacy.

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