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The backstory: Humans are naturally social animals. As we’ve evolved as a species, we’ve had to rely on each other for survival. Back when we lived in hunter-gatherer times, being alone meant being vulnerable to danger. So, our brains now expect contact with other people, and without that contact, we can get all out of whack. A lack of social interaction has been linked to changes in a lot of different body systems, from blood pressure to BMI to mental health to chronic inflammation.
More recently: Loneliness and social isolation have become bigger problems in society, especially in developed countries, as we prioritize work and spend more time on social media – which actually makes us feel even more disconnected. For years, we all had to experience some level of isolation from our friends, family and peers because of the COVID pandemic, which highlighted that effect. We were only allowed to really be around people within our own households, and not everyone lives with other people. But even now that most countries have put those quarantine restrictions in the past, that doesn’t mean we’ve left behind that loneliness.
The development: A large new study just published in the journal Nature Human Behavior is shedding more light on the effects of social isolation and loneliness. This paper looks at 90 studies on the links between loneliness, social isolation and early death that involved over 2 million adults. The subjects were observed for anywhere from six months to 25 years.
With all of this information, researchers were able to see that socially isolated people had a 32% higher risk of dying early from literally any cause compared to people who weren’t. Participants who felt lonely were 14% more likely to die early than those who didn’t. One reason why this could happen is that humans experience loneliness and isolation as a form of stress.
“We all may feel lonely from time to time, but when that feeling is permanent, it may act as a form of chronic stress, which is unhealthy,” Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the department of psychology at New York’s Stony Brook University told CNN. “One way in which that may occur is through stress hormones that adversely affect the body.”
“The effect of social isolation and loneliness on mortality is comparable to that of other well-established risk factors such as smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
“Some of the evidence seems to suggest that we should have somewhere between four to six people in our lives and prioritize in-person over online contact,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, told Popular Mechanics.