Country music legend Hank Williams once crooned, “I’m so lonesome I could cry,” but he could easily have changed the last word to reflect another hard truth: “I’m so lonesome I could die.” Unfortunately, that’s not an exaggeration. Studies continue to reveal links between loneliness and a variety of physical, emotional and mental health problems. However, unlike diabetes, cancer and plaque-filled arteries, it’s not easy to detect.
“Loneliness is tricky because someone has to tell you,” says Kerstin Gerst Emerson, a clinical assistant professor in the Institute of Gerontology at the University of Georgia in Athens. “You can’t give the patient a blood test or an MRI.” Instead, diagnosis depends on asking questions. Living alone isn’t always the problem, although it can be. More important, say experts , is a subjective feeling of social separation. “We’re all lonely from time to time, but the problems come when someone is chronically lonely, day in and day out,” says Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and genomics researcher at the University of California in Los Angeles.
Report: More than 42 million Americans identify as being lonely
When loneliness becomes a lifestyle, it can have a profound effect on health and can lead to increased levels of stress hormones as well as a heightened risk for heart attack and stroke, dementia, and premature mortality. According to the American Psychological Association, more than 42 million Americans identify as being lonely. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that number will only increase: More than a quarter of the population lives alone and nearly half of the population is unmarried. Given this outlook, some health care professionals see not only an incipient public health hazard, but an epidemic.
In fact, much of the current research piles on proof that loneliness can be hazardous to your health. Add it to the list of things to avoid to survive cardiovascular disease. Loneliness can be more dangerous to your health than obesity. In the March 27 issue of the medical journal Heart, researchers in Finland published the results of a seven-year study in the U.K. of nearly 480,000 adults between the ages of 40 and 69. Those with preexisting cardiovascular problems who identified as being lonely and isolated faced serious odds. For those with a history of heart attack, the risk of death increased by 25 percent, and for those who had a history of stroke, the risk went up by 32 percent.