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Health

Is loneliness a bigger public health risk than obesity?

| Monday, Jan. 1, 2018, 9:00 p.m.

Loneliness can tank your mood, but can it affect your health, too?

All signs point to yes.

It turns out that feeling lonely can do more than make you sad: It can predict the way your body will respond to and bounce back from various health challenges. Lonely people are more likely to get sick, and researchers want to know why.

Three of them recently spoke about the current state of loneliness research and how scientists are responding.

The 40-minute conversation covers such topics as what loneliness seems to do in the body — including increased inflammation and neurological and genetic changes — and how health-care providers are reacting.

For years, researchers have linked loneliness to poor health. People who say that they're lonely are more likely to have dementia and inflammation, and to die prematurely. And in research presented to the American Psychological Association this summer, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University who participated on the Aspen panel, posited that loneliness is a bigger public health risk than obesity.

Feeling lonely isn't the only risk to your health; so is living alone and being socially isolated. The panelists discuss such things as how the design of public spaces might affect the number of people we encounter and whether there are gender differences in social support. They also explore whether social media makes us more or less connected — a question that may drive future research into loneliness.

Bottom line: There's hope for people who feel lonely, but there's a long way to go before scientists understand exactly how loneliness affects health and what to do about it. It's a conversation worth having.

You can listen to their discussion on Aspen Ideas to Go, the podcast of the Aspen Ideas Festival, or watch the discussion online.

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