Research Suggests Loneliness Is As Bad for You as Smoking Nearly a Pack of Cigarettes a Day

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Humans are social animals. That means that our friendships, family, and other social networks are not just pleasures; they're also essential to our survival. New research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association finds that loneliness and isolation may be bigger public health issues than previously realized.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival," psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University said in a statement.

"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."

A 2010 AARP study of adults aged 45 and up found that more than one-third of respondents felt lonely, and that loneliness and poor health went hand in hand.

To quantify the impact of loneliness and isolation, Holt-Lunstad conducted two separate meta-analyses of the scientific literature, reviewing a total of 218 studies. Her first analysis found that higher social connectedness is linked to as much as a 50 percent decrease in risk of early death.

The second, which included data from more than 3.4 million people in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, suggests that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone can be as bad for a person's health as other common risks. (The AARP study also concluded that prolonged isolation carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.)

"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," Holt-Lunstad said.

"With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."

To combat loneliness, experts recommend strengthening existing relationships, scheduling regular phone dates with friends, and signing up to volunteer or otherwise help build community.

Carla Perissinotto is a geriatrician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. "Maintaining connections, that touchy-feely thing, is actually really important," she told NPR. "It's hard to measure, it's hard to quantify, but there is something real."

Why You're Probably Washing Your Hands All Wrong

Washing your hands is the best protection against germs.
Washing your hands is the best protection against germs.
rclassenlayouts/iStock via Getty Images

When some of us fall ill, we begin to wonder what brought on the coughing, sneezing, and aching. We might blame a sniffling person in the checkout lane or an office pandemic.

Obviously, there are many ways to catch a viral or bacterial infection. But the single best way to minimize that risk is to wash your hands. And while that might seem simple—it is, after all, a skill taught to us as children—you may not be doing it correctly.

Popular Science recently highlighted the importance of handwashing, noting that people may touch their face up to 52 times per day. If they’ve just touched a surface that’s harboring germs, that’s 52 opportunities for pathogens to settle in the mucus membranes and lash out with everything from flu to respiratory infections. Proper hand hygiene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, can reduce the community risk for respiratory illness by 16 to 21 percent and for unpleasantness like diarrhea by up to 40 percent.

The problem? People tend to wash too quickly, sticking their hands under the faucet for a few fleeting moments and moving on. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture evaluated 383 subjects and found that most did only a cursory wash.

It’s better to follow the CDC’s advice, which is to get your hands thoroughly wet with very warm water—which can be enough to kill some microbes—and then lather up, making sure to reach every fold and surface area between your fingers, around your wrists, and under your nails.

So far, this is not the stuff of surgical scrubbing. But here’s where most people drop the ball: Rather than soap up for just a few seconds, try to keep the cleaning going for 20 seconds. That’s two cycles of the “Happy Birthday” song. When you’re done, dry with a clean towel.

It’s good to wash up before eating, after coming from outside, handling an animal, or prior to touching your face for any reason, like putting in contacts or flossing. Obviously, washing after using the bathroom is a must, but you knew that.

As for hand sanitizer: It’s good for when there’s no running water available, but it can’t kill all germs, and it won’t do a whole lot if there’s visible dirt or grime on your hands. Water and soap remain the gold standard.

[h/t Popular Science]

China's Coronavirus App Is Alerting Citizens When They're in Danger of Being Infected

Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Kevin Frayer, Getty Images

Questions continue to linger around the new coronavirus, currently plaguing parts of China and other countries. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus, the Chinese government recently introduced a smartphone app that claims to alert users when someone suspected of having the virus has been nearby.

According to the BBC, the app, dubbed the “close contact detector," works by having phone users register their name and government ID number. Once they activate the service, they’ll be notified if they’ve been in a place where someone diagnosed with coronavirus has been. Patient A, for example, might have reported being on a train, in a classroom, or in an office space that the app user also occupied. The user would get an alert along with a notice to stay home in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Whether a user has been in close contact is determined by their physical proximity to someone suspected of having the virus. Airplane passengers in the three rows surrounding someone suspected of being infected would be considered in close contact. Other passengers may not be considered close.

The scope of the app appears to be limited to information provided by transit authorities and other institutions and does not appear to be an all-inclusive method of determining exposure.

The app is state-sponsored and was developed by the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission, and the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation. While critics have said the app presents an invasion of privacy and a way for government to track any user's movements, others have argued that the risk to public health warrants it.

"In this case the public good and the public health has to outweigh the privacy concerns, otherwise we have no shot of doing anything about this," Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told ABC News.

[h/t BBC]

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