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Loneliness, Isolation Lead to Shorter Lives

Mar 13, 2015 09:14 PM EDT

Eating right and exercising are often cited as the key ingredients to a long and happy life, so you wouldn't think that your social life would have any impact. But new research shows that it does, as loneliness and isolation have been linked to having a short life.

"The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously," Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the study's lead author, said in a statement. "We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously."

Loneliness can come in several different forms, however. For example, someone may be surrounded by people and still feel alone, whereas others may isolate themselves because they prefer to be alone. Regardless, the threat to longevity is the same.

"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," said Tim Smith, co-author of the study. "With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future."

The research team, from Brigham Young University, studied more than three million people from several health studies, analyzing date on loneliness, social isolation, and living alone.

What they found was that a lack of social connections increased one's risk for mortality, while having relationships decreased one's risk. In fact, the researchers equate loneliness and its affect on our health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic.

Interestingly, the link between loneliness and longevity was more pronounced among younger populations compared to older ones. You would think that because elderly people are more prone to dying that this wouldn't be the case, but in fact loneliness and social isolation better predict premature death among populations younger than 65 years.

"In essence, the study is saying the more positive psychology we have in our world, the better we're able to function not just emotionally but physically," Smith concluded.

The results were published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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