Weekly Wellness: The serious effects of loneliness

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COLUMBIA - I'm sure most of us have felt lonely from time to time. Maybe we are away from a spouse on a business trip, or going away from home to school for the first time. Or maybe we haven't yet found a "special someone" or have recently ended a romantic relationship. These can be fairly common kinds of loneliness. Fortunately, generally, these experiences of loneliness can be temporary and incidental.

We aren't talking about that.

There are decades of research that substantiate the devastating effects of social isolation. Loneliness is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and increases the risk of death by 26-45% (which is similar to the same impacts of high blood pressure, obesity, and lack of exercise).

Isolation is, unfortunately, widespread. With a recent survey by Cigna (which included more than 20,000 people) revealed 46% of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone.

While loneliness affects 43% of seniors over age 65, there is evidence to show that the loneliest population is 18- to 22-year-olds. While typically a low-risk population, young adults experience rates of loneliness and social isolation far higher than any other age group according to Cigna's recent survey. 

What can we do if we, or a loved one, is experiencing loneliness?

  • Acknowledge it and talk about it: it can be dangerous to try to hide these feelings. Share with a trusted confidant.
  • Stay off social media: A study published last year in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that social media users feel more isolated than peers who dedicate little time to online networks.
  • Get a pet: A study conducted last year discovered that owning a dog can help to reduce the risk of premature death, especially among people who live on their own, who happen to be the group most at risk of experiencing debilitating loneliness.
  • Change "uninvited loneliness" into “invited solitude": turn the loneliness into an opportunity for some "me time" to destress, and develop new (or old) skills

If your loneliness feels too overwhelming, please seek assistance from a medical health professional. And, if you notice an elderly neighbor, maybe stop by and bring in their mail or newspaper every once in a while. It could make all the difference in their world.