Health

Researchers Say This Common Feeling Is More Dangerous Than Smoking 15 Cigarettes a Day

You've probably experienced loneliness at some point: after a breakup, when you move to a new city. But did you know it poses serious health risks?

Researchers have confirmed that loneliness can be a deadly affliction — as lethal as diabetes or smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

“We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously,” Julianne Holt-Lunstad, the author of a Brigham Young University study on loneliness, said in a statement. “The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously.”

The world is in the throes of an invisible loneliness epidemic, with 60 million sufferers in America alone.

The number of adults reporting loneliness has doubled since the 1980s, from 20 percent to 40 percent.

Loneliness is particularly pronounced among certain groups of people, such as immigrants, the elderly, the disabled, and those in low-income families. But a new study finds that it's natural for loneliness to fluctuate throughout our lives in ways that aren't always expected.

"Around 30, there’s elevated levels of loneliness, and then again at age 50," Dr. Maike Luhmann, psychologist at the University of Cologne in Germany, told Vox."That has not been found before."

Loneliness is also more widespread in big cities. 

“Social isolation just may be the greatest environmental hazard of city living — worse than noise, pollution, or even crowding," Charles Montgomery wrote in his 2013 book "Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design." 

Here are some of the health hazards associated with loneliness.

Loneliness can cause so many health issues, some experts believe it should be treated as a chronic illness.

Inflammation

Lonely people generate more inflammation-related proteins in stressful situations than socially connected people, according to a study by Ohio State University College of Medicine.

Inflammation can lead to other health problems, including Type 2 diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression.

Inflammation may also go hand in hand with impaired immune function, which the study found to be another side effect of loneliness.

"Both, in different ways, indicate that the immune system is a little out of whack," study researcher Lisa Jaremka, a postdoctoral fellow at Ohio State, told LiveScience.

Heart problems

Loneliness can literally break your heart, researchers at the University of York found. The stress and fear associated with being alone can trigger an inflammatory response in your body, which is a major risk factor for heart disease. Socially isolated or lonely people are 29 percent more likely to have heart disease and 32 percent more likely to have a stroke, according to the study.

Dementia

Sufferers of loneliness are at a 64 percent greater risk of dementia later in life, according to a Dutch study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry.

The increased risk hinges on feelings of loneliness and is not correlated simply with living alone. "Interestingly, the fact that 'feeling lonely' rather than 'being alone' was associated with dementia onset suggests that it is not the objective situation but, rather, the perceived absence of social attachments that increases the risk of cognitive decline," the study authors told The Guardian.

Obesity

Because inactivity tends to be a staple of loneliness, the feeling is associated with obesity, which is linked to diabetes and other serious health conditions.

Premature death

Being socially isolated renders you 30 percent more likely to suffer a premature death than your socially involved counterparts, the study by Brigham Young University showed. And you don't need to only feel lonely for this bear out. A study author told CNN that being alone and feeling alone should both be taken seriously.

And because inflammation can trigger depression, there's also an increased risk of suicide.

Why are people so lonely?

It's possible people are experiencing unprecedented levels of loneliness because the number of people living alone has been increasing for decades, to more than 27 percent in 2013 from about 5 percent in the 1920s.

The number of one-person households across the globe has also been on the rise, CBS News reported.

Another factor may be the effect of social media.

You may feel more socially connected as a result of, say, Facebook, but you feel less happy the more time you spend on it, a PLOS One study found.

The amount of time spent on the social media site inversely affected how satisfied users were with their lives, the study added.

Holt-Lunstad, of the BYU study, had this to say to Time about loneliness:

“This is something that we need to take seriously for our health. This should become a public-health issue.”