A public health epidemic of loneliness may be afoot. A new study from Brigham Young University has found loneliness and social isolation can predict early death similar to the risks predicted by obesity.

Thirty years ago, the issue of obesity was still in its infancy. America was indeed getting fatter, but the extent to which our health was declining earned little attention. Now the obesity epidemic sits front-and-center, as more than a third of the country is obese and more than two-thirds is overweight. Unfortunately, with much of the spotlight on physical health, mental health continues to suffer largely in the dark.

How we socialize, or choose not to, seems to play a deciding role, says BYU psychology researcher and co-author of the study, Tim Smith. "Not only are we at the highest recorded rate of living alone across the entire century, but we're at the highest recorded rates ever on the planet," Smith said in a statement. As communication goes global, the means by which we connect to people — even those who are within walking distance — are making a digital migration. Conversation is changing, and sometimes going away for good.

According to Smith and his colleagues, this trend is dangerous. Looking at 70 different studies with more than three million people included in the total sample, they found loneliness increased a person’s risk of death by 26 percent, social isolation by 29 percent, and living alone by 32 percent. These risks are in line with more well-established causes of death, including obesity, substance abuse, lack of immunization, mental health disorders, and violence or injury, as outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services. Interestingly, the risks were greatest among people younger than 65 years old. To the researchers, this implied a deepening disengagement with the social world.

"With loneliness on the rise," Smith said, "we are predicting a possible loneliness epidemic in the future."

Can’t Buy Me Love

Social connections are increasingly winning praise as not just a perk of healthy lifestyles, but as a cause of them. Intuitively, many of us already know this. Friends and family help bring out an energy that we can’t tap into on our own. We may prefer to be alone in order to reconcile our thoughts and emotions, but when it comes to feelings of belonging and compassion, a loved one’s affection has no peers.

To explain these bonds, science turns to the hormone oxytocin. It gets secreted when we have sex, give hugs, and feed our babies. Its role in promoting intimacy frequently earns it the nickname, the “love hormone,” but don’t mistake a cute moniker for expendability. The World Health Organization recognizes oxytocin as of its Essential Medicines for maintaining basic health. Without it, we not only shy away from intimacy; we may also turn aggressive.

We also keep our health for longer. Oxytocin helps us maintain the social connections that preserve our vitality as we age. Having people around boosts our sense of well-being and instills in us a sense of optimism, which we may then apply to other aspects of our lives in a virtuous feedback loop. "In essence," Smith said, "the study is saying the more positive psychology we have in our world, the better we're able to function not just emotionally but physically."

Affluent countries carry the highest rates of solitary living since the census began tracking that behavior, the researchers point out. Left to themselves, people turn to electronic communication as their primary source of contact with much of the outside world. By 2030, some predict, loneliness will reach epidemic proportions. "Although living alone can offer conveniences and advantages for an individual, this meta-analysis indicates that physical health is not among them, particularly for adults younger than 65 years of age," the authors wrote.

In other words, while the richest countries in the world may be able to afford to continue living in isolation, their health cannot.

Source: Holt-Lunstad R, Smith T, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2015.