When we think of public health threats a lot of different things come to mind, not the least of which is climate change and all of the looming problems that brings. But have you ever considered loneliness as a health risk? According to science, you should.
In an article that ran on TheHill.com, Dr. Jonathan Fielding points to the myriad issues associated with feeling alone, isolated, or just plain sedentary. Fielding's concern isn't necessarily a new one, but it is one that hasn't been properly addressed since a research study back in 1988 suggesting loneliness is a major risk factor in regards to our mortality.
Often loneliness can go undiagnosed. You could be someone with a very busy life, but meaningful social interactions just aren't there in the day-to-day or, even worse, for longer stretches of time than that.
A recent survey conducted by The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that nine percent of adults in Japan, 22 percent in the US, and 23 percent in Britain either always or often feel lonely, citing a lack of companionship. In another study on the subject, this time surveying 20,000 U.S. adults and published by Cigna in combination with Ipsos, found that early half of American adults said they either sometimes or always feel alone or left out. That's an awful lot of people who feel like they don't have a shoulder to cry on, or even an ear to listen.
So what does science say are the potential symptoms of loneliness that can affect our health? According to Fielding, this can include a decrease in one's resistance to infection (yikes!) and a decrease in cognitive abilities, with depression and dementia being two conditions that could result.
In the US we haven't done much to address the issue of loneliness and its impact on our physical and mental health, but in the United Kingdom some doctors will actually hand out a social prescription, requesting that their patients participate in some sort of interactive social activity. It reminds us of the doctors who are prescribing playtime prescriptions for kids to fight childhood obesity. Sometimes there are things that medicine simply can't cure, and we do have to rely on other approaches to get the help we need.
If you feel lonely, don't chalk it up to a fleeting mood. Consider talking to a professional who can guide you through that emotion before you put your health at risk in more ways than one.