Lack of social connections can be as harmful to people's well-being as suffering from diseases, stress or poverty, and can even reduce life expectancy. Loneliness and isolation are not only on the rise among the elderly but growing parts of the general population as well. Paradoxically, neither the Internet nor social media -- designed to promote communication and connectedness -- seem to be able to mitigate these trends, according to several recent studies on the importance of social interactions for good health.
Based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, well over a quarter of all households in North America today consist of just one person.
Surveys by the PEW Research Center and others show large-scale shifts away from traditional settings like neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and public spaces that have long functioned as the dominant social networks. Some of this may contribute to both physical and mental health problems not recognized in this context before.
One study from Brigham Young University in Utah that analyzed millions of single-persons households in terms of health and lifespan found that those living on their own had an increased risk of dying prematurely of up to 32 per cent over their counterparts who enjoyed a rich social life. The health threats of social disconnectedness are said to be comparable to those of obesity, smoking or chronic stress.
Several other studies detected that feelings of loneliness and separation can raise stress hormones like cortisol, which in turn can lead to stroke and heart attack.
Mental health issues like age-related memory loss and dementia may also be exacerbated through social isolation and lack of interpersonal stimulation.
Despite our extensive communication infrastructure, we are now seeing the highest rates of people living alone and oftentimes more disconnected from their social environments than perhaps ever before, the Brigham Young researchers say.
Some experts argue that innovations like the Internet and social media are in fact partly responsible for the gradual disappearance of personal interactions. A study from Stanford University stipulates that the technological developments over the past decades may have improved our quality of life in many ways but also led to less desirable changes in our social behavior.
There are fewer and fewer interactions that require face-to-face contact, both for work and daily living, says Norman H. Nie, a professor of political science at the Stanford Institute for Quantitative Study of Society (SIQSS) that conducted the study.
"The world is more connected than ever before, but people spend less time in person with those they care about. With regards to social interactions, quantity has replaced quality," Nie warns.
With single people under the age of 65 representing the fastest growing household type and the dramatic changes in the ways we work and communicate with one another, it is imperative that we invent better social environments than those many of our contemporaries are currently finding themselves in, the Stanford study suggests.
While they are very real, the effects of loneliness are hard to gauge, though. People are hesitant to admit they need greater interaction with others, writes Jessica Olien of Slate magazine in an article on the subject.
"In a society that judges you based on how expansive your social networks appear, loneliness is difficult to fess up to. It feels shameful," she explains.
But, she says, "in terms of human interactions, the number of people we know is not the best measure. In order to be socially satisfied, we don't need all that many people. [...] The key is in the quality, not the quantity of those people. We just need several on whom we can depend and who depend on us in return."
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