Loneliness is a serious public health problem

The lonely are not just sadder; they are unhealthier and die younger. What can be done? LINK Economist

Loneliness is not synonymous with social isolation (how often a person meets or speaks to friends and family) or with solitude (which implies a choice to be alone). Loneliness is not synonymous with social isolation (how often a person meets or speaks to friends and family) or with solitude (which implies a choice to be alone).

The study found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% in America and 23% in Britain always or often feel lonely, or lack companionship, or else feel left out or isolated. Isolation is increasing in other ways, too. From 1985 to 2009 the average size of an American’s social network—defined by number of confidants—declined by more than one-third.

Evidence points to the benign power of a social life. Suicides fall during football World Cups, for example, maybe because of the transient feeling of community.

In 2015 a meta-analysis led by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University, in Utah, synthesised 70 papers, through which 3.4m participants were followed over an average of seven years. She found that those classed as lonely had a 26% higher risk of dying, and those living alone a 32% higher chance, after accounting for differences in age and health status.

Researchers have three theories as to how loneliness may lead to ill health, says Nicole Valtorta of Newcastle University. The first covers behaviour. Lacking encouragement from family or friends, the lonely may slide into unhealthy habits. The second is biological. Loneliness may raise levels of stress, say, or impede sleep, and in turn harm the body. The third is psychological, since loneliness can augment depression or anxiety.

It is not clear whether it is heavy social-media use leading to loneliness, or vice versa. Other research shows that the correlation between social-media use and, say, depression is weak. The most rigorous recent study of British adolescents’ social-media use, published by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein in 2017, found no link between “moderate” use and measures of well-being. They found evidence to support their “digital Goldilocks hypothesis”: neither too little nor too much screen time is probably best.

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