Is Obesity The Greatest Risk to Your Health? A New Study Reveals A More Powerful and Challenging One

Almost 3 decades ago, I first read about this risk factor, that increased the risk of developing several chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer. While the obesity epidemic has long been front-and-center in major cities across the U.S., new research finds it is an even greater public health threat than being overweight.

148 Studies Analyzed

Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University conducted two meta-analyses of previous studies to determine how social isolation, loneliness, and living alone plays a role in a person’s risk of dying.

In an analysis of 148 studies that included more than 300,000 people total, her research team found that “a greater social connection” cuts a person’s risk of early death by 50 percent.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” says Holt-Lunstad in an American Psychological Association press release.. “Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.”

In her second analysis, she looked at the role that loneliness, social isolation, and living alone played in a person’s lifespan. Using 70 studies that included more than 3.4 million participants (mostly from North America, but some studies did look at people in Europe, Asia, and Australia), the research team concluded that all three were as much of — and in some cases more — a threat to a person’s health as obesity and other risk factors.

All three conditions were found to be equally hazardous and significantly raised the risk of premature death.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” says Holt-Lunstad.

Earlier Social Isolation Research

As a species, humans are social beings. (This also applies to some animals, such as elephants and dolphins.) Relationships are the fundamental way we express love, and it has been proved that healthy relationships have a tremendous positive impact on our well-being. Isolation and adversarial relationships contribute to physical decline and psychological turmoil.

From the moment of conception to the time of death, relationships are a pervasive and encompassing part of life, serving many important functions.

Social isolation is a significant health risk.Researchers made a dramatic finding in the 1980s when, after following thousands of residents of Alameda County, California, for several years, they determined social isolation to be a significant risk factor for all diseases, including heart disease. Since then, others scientists around the world have confirmed a link between the lack of social support and the development of heart disease in humans and animals.

Did you know that supportive relationships are the strongest predictor of good health throughout the course of our lives? Family ties and friendships enhance our health and exert one of the most potent protective mechanisms against the development of disease. Examples abound, from the healing power of social support to the benefits of a happy marriage.

A study of patients recovering from heart attacks found that those with lower amounts of emotional support were nearly three times as likely to die in six months as those with higher levels of emotional support. Social support is linked to lower death rates from a variety of other diseases, and there is relatively strong evidence linking it to aspects of the functioning of the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems.

Death from conditions of these systems occurs more often among people who are isolated. In fact, isolation is considered to be a comparable risk factor to smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and high blood pressure. The quantity and quality of our social relationships are related not only to the prevention of disease but also to longevity. Isolation was defined, as being physically apart, i.e., separated from others to the extreme.  While there are certainly people who prefer to be alone, most don’t, and the physical and perception of separation from others, and the absence of emotional support, are powerful determinants of health.

According to the AARP’s Loneliness Study conducted in 2010, 35 percent of Americans age 45 and older are suffering from chronic loneliness — which equates to about 43 million people. Similarly, half the country’s adult population is unmarried and more than a quarter live alone, according to U.S. census data.

“These trends suggest that Americans are becoming less socially connected and experiencing more loneliness,” adds Holt-Lunstad, who presented the findings today at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Washington.

Moving forward, Holt-Lunstad hopes that health officials nationwide spend significant resources  to help tackle the issues of loneliness and isolation. She suggests primary care physicians screen for such conditions during routine examinations and that Americans consider ways to ensure they enjoy a socially-connected retirement in similar ways they plan financially for retiring. Otherwise, she sees the issue growing far worse in the near future.

“With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it,” she says.

So it should come as no surprise that healthy relationships are a cornerstone of our well-being; they improve our lives significantly, not only emotionally but physically as well. Social bonding and soothing behaviors relieve the damaging effects of negative events and enhance our health. Healthy relationships buffer us from the stresses of life and diminish the stress response and activity in the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Solitude Vs Isolation An Important Distinction

It is important to make a distinction between isolation and loneliness, in comparison to solitude.

Ongoing (chronic) loneliness is harmful to our health and well being, because its hallmark is a sense of isolation. There is a perception and feeling that something is missing. It is possible to be with people and still feel lonely—perhaps the most bitter form of loneliness. These harmful feelings and perceptions changes our physiology through the release of stress related hormones that lead to the impairment of immune system functioning and other essential organ functions.

While solitude is the state of being alone without being lonely. It is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself wonderful and sufficient company.

Solitude is a time that can be used for reflection, inner searching or growth or enjoyment of some kind. Deep reading requires solitude, so does experiencing nature’s beauty.

Solitude suggests peacefulness stemming from a state of inner richness. It is a means of enjoying the quiet and whatever it brings that is satisfying and from which we draw sustenance. It is something we cultivate.


SuperHealing: Engaging Your Mind, Body and Spirit to Create Optimal Health and Well-Being– Chapter 8-The SuperHealing Power of Love and Relationships