New research from Brigham Young University suggests that being alone is just as unhealthy as being obese – especially in those who are over 65 years of age. Surprisingly enough, the effect holds even for the more introverted individuals who actually like to spend a great deal of their time in solitude.
“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 professor of counselling psychology and study co-author Tim Smith. “With loneliness on the rise, we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future.”
According to some experts, this might happen in just 30 years’ time – a recent Current Population Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau showed the increase in people who live alone, a steady progression from 5 percent in the 1920s to 27 percent in 2013.
Looking at 70 different studies with more than 3 million people included in the total sample, the research team found that loneliness increased one’s risk of death by 26 percent, social isolation by 29 percent and living alone by 32 percent. Elderly people over 65 were found to be the most affected.
These risks are in line with more established health hazards like smoking, substance abuse and morbid obesity.
“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,” noted Smith.
The study controlled for socioeconomic status, age, gender and pre-existing health conditions, and evaluated three aspects: loneliness, social isolation and living alone.
Although all three are important, none is enough to paint a full picture on its own. “It’s certainly possible to be living alone but have other social connections. Someone could be socially isolated but prefer to be alone. And it’s also possible to be around a lot of people and still feel lonely,” explained study lead-author and associate professor of psychology Julianne Holt-Lunstad.
So even though living alone may convey certain benefits for the individual, this meta-analysis indicates that physical health is not among them.
The team hopes that their findings, published in Perspectives in Psychological Science, will prompt as much action as did previous studies in the same vein.