Loneliness Worse for Health Than Smoking, Obesity, Alcoholism

While it might not be regularly considered a high-risk lifestyle factor, the so-called loneliness epidemic appears to be an absolutely devastating risk factor for health.

In a press release about new research, the Regenstrief Institute data informatics firm said that its study, conducted alongside the Indiana University School of Medicine, suggests that a majority of people aged 65 or older consider themselves lonely — which may well be worse for them than alcoholism, obesity, smoking at least 15 cigarettes per day, or leading a sedentary lifestyle.

Published in the Journal of the American Geriatric Society, this groundbreaking look at what researchers are calling a "biophysical stressor" may help doctors better address this overlooked lifestyle factor that seems to greatly reduce quality of life for seniors.

The results were alarming: that nearly 53 percent of seniors identified in a database study experienced loneliness, and among those who experienced it, mental and physical health outcomes were much poorer across demographics and health conditions.

As prior research has indicated, loneliness is associated with greater mortality risks than the aforementioned lifestyle factors — though to be fair, the two can be entwined when being lonely leads to overindulging in food and alcohol, or lessen the desire or even ability to exercise, depending on whether it's comorbid with other mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

"Based on the literature and research, loneliness has influences on health that are quite significant and quite strong," IU research scientist and professor Monica Williams-Farrelly said in the Regenstrief press release. "So in the same way that we ask older adults: 'Do you smoke? Or do you measure your blood sugar?' We should be inquiring about and measuring loneliness and offering solutions."

Williams-Farrelly and her colleagues gathered their data by sifting through the Caregiver Outcomes of Alzheimer's Disease Screening study, an ongoing survey that evaluates dementia screening among clinicians. While their specific dataset comes from the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the researchers said that they'd identified a growing trend in loneliness long before the coronavirus outbreak and its accompanying isolation.

"Loneliness may seem simple, but it can be complex to identify and address," the research scientist said. "It started to become a problem before COVID-19, and then with the national stay-at-home order caused by the pandemic, social contact was being prevented, which exacerbated the problem."

To help address this loneliness epidemic, which in 2023 was the subject of an advisory from the US Surgeon General's Office because it's gotten so bad, the IU and Regenstrief researchers are suggesting that these feelings of isolation be treated as serious health factors — before it's too late.

More on aging adulthood: Doing This Thing While Talking Is a Sign of Oncoming Dementia, Scientists Find