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Dr. Ken’s Corner: Loneliness Linked to Serious Health Problems

Doctors can add another risk factor when taking a patient’s history–loneliness.  A strong body of evidence now shows that lonely people are more likely to become ill and die early.  Heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, and suicide have all been linked to chronic loneliness.  And studies show that Americans, young and old alike, are lonelier than ever.

Dr. Ken Teufel is the Medical Director at Interim Physicians.

Chronic loneliness is associated with a “reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity,” according to former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.  In a 2017 interview, Dr. Murthy calls loneliness an epidemic, a trend that “has been taking place for years, yet we are only just recognizing its magnitude and impact.”  Dr. Murthy writes in the Harvard Business Review that although “we live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.”

It’s a myth to think that loneliness only affects the elderly.  Of course, as people age they’re more likely to become socially isolated, especially when they suffer the loss of a spouse, family members, and friends.  But contrary to common belief, teenagers are also quite susceptible to loneliness.  Studies show that 20 to 80 percent of adolescents report that they often feel lonely, compared to 40 to 50 percent of the elderly.  Another finding: When it comes to being lonely, there are no major differences between men and women and no major differences between races.

Regardless of one’s age, staying connected through social media sites, says Dr. Murthy, is no substitute for the more personal connections that take place offline.  “Our cities are filled with thousands of friends on Facebook and Linkedin who are profoundly alone.”

Another reason for the loneliness epidemic is an increasingly mobile society that’s putting greater distances between family members and close friends.  Plus, according to census data, one in four American adults now live alone.

Changing work environments are also a contributing factor.  As telecommuting becomes more popular and more people are working from home, there’s limited opportunity for face-to-face interaction with work colleagues.  For a variety of reasons, building strong connections to social networks has become increasingly difficult in modern-day culture.

How does one “diagnose” loneliness?  The UCLA Loneliness Scale, one of several screening tools, has proven to be simple and easy to use as well as highly effective.  Patients are asked only three questions and their answers are then scored on a scale of 1 to 3.  The questions are:  How often do you feel that you lack companionship?  How often do you feel left out?  How often do you feel isolated from others?  For each question, responses are coded as follows:  “Hardly ever” (score of 1), “some of the time” (score of 2), “often” (score of 3).  The scores for each individual question are then added together for a total score ranging from 3 to 9.  People who score 3 to 5 are said to be “not lonely” and those with a score of 6 to 9 as “lonely.”

The bottom line:  Loneliness should be recognized as a risk factor that can affect a person’s physical and mental health, regardless of age, gender, or race.  Screening for loneliness may be beneficial.