When Britney Spears sang, “My loneliness is killing me” in “Baby One More Time,” she had no idea how right she was.
At the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, one big point was made — we’re getting lonelier, and it could be killing us.
Now that the baby boomer generation is reaching old age, and since with old age often comes isolation, we could be seeing an increase in deaths caused by loneliness. Specifically, two meta-analyses of research done on nearly 4 million people found that social isolation, loneliness and living alone are linked with premature death, while having abundant and deep social ties can reduce your risk of premature death by up to 50 percent. Uh, time to finally join a book club, I guess. Making friends as an adult is legit hard, but this research makes it clear that it’s something you should try to do.
It makes sense when you think about it. If you don’t have a romantic partner who’s there to have your back or a social network of people to care for you, it’s easier to slip through the cracks if you aren’t taking care of yourself or aren’t able to care for yourself. And I’m sure all of us who have lived alone have had the same “what if I choke on this pizza roll and tragically perish and the landlord finds me days later dead in my underwear while Friends reruns autoplay on my laptop” thought (not that I would ever eat pizza rolls in my underwear, nuh-uh, not me!). If you live alone and have a medical emergency, you might not be able to call 911 and get help yourself — it’s genuinely scary to think about and something that a lot of older people face.
Add to that the fact that families don’t tend to stay in one area as much as they used to — only one of my close friends lives in the same town as their parents and just a handful live closer than a two-hour drive — and you can see how prevalent this isolation is becoming. The APA estimates that there are 42.6 million adults in the U.S. over the age of 45 who suffer from chronic loneliness, which is really heartbreaking.
But loneliness isn’t just a health hazard to older adults. “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival. Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment,” says Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychology professor at Brigham Young University. “There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” like smoking and metabolic syndrome, she said.
So what can be done?
If you immediately thought “Golden Girls,” you’re not far off. Holt-Lunstad says that people should prepare for retirement socially the same way they do financially so you don’t lose all of your friends when you stop working. Moving in with your single friends late in life is a perfect way to make sure you still have some close social ties and the sort of mutual care you can get by simply living with someone. No choking on pizza rolls in your underwear, basically.
She also says that doctors should screen for social connectedness just like they do other basic health metrics, and she thinks that community gardens and rec centers that can bring people together should be prioritized in city planning. Additionally, kids should be actively taught social skills in school, which honestly, I 100 percent could have benefitted from. It turns out feeding the trash can wasps Fruit Roll-Ups during recess isn’t exactly the greatest way to make friends.
If you’re feeling lonely, there are a number of hotlines you can call, like The Friendship Line (for older adults), Crisis Text Line and the Contact Helpline. And if you think you know someone who is suffering from chronic loneliness, don’t be afraid to reach out.
In the meantime, after reading about all of this, I think I’m in serious need of some social interaction. Time to start planning my next Game of Thrones viewing party!