Modern medicine is helping more humans live longer, healthier lives than ever before. But a new problem is rearing its head: loneliness.

US researchers are warning of a “loneliness epidemic” that is exacerbating health problems. A study recently presented to the American Society of Psychologists showed that people who have multiple social contacts have a 50% lower risk of dying unexpectedly.

Another meta-analysis which looked at 148 studies from the US, Europe and Australia showed that social isolation, loneliness and living alone have measurable impacts on premature death – nearly as much as other risk factors like smoking and obesity.

“This research has been underestimated,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist from Brigham University, who presented the findings in Washington, US. “Data collected from hundreds of studies with millions of participants provides us with strong evidence of the importance of social contacts for physical health and the risk of premature death.”

“Lonely people smoke more frequently, are more likely to be overweight and report less physical activity,” adds Anne Boeger of the German Centre for Old Age. The centre also reports that loneliness has been associated with increased breast cancer risk and cardiovascular problems.

Holt-Lunstad says that in 2010, 35% of people over 45 years old were chronically lonely – a decade ago, it was only 20%. The reasons for the increase? More single households, higher divorce rates and a stronger focus on social media than on real life contacts.

Yet Maike Luhmann, a psychology professor at the University of Bochum, is more optimistic. She recently published a large study on solitude based on German socio-economic data.

Luhmann’s research did not establish a link between health and loneliness, but did show that loneliness is not limited to ageing populations, even though the elderly do suffer from loneliness the most.

Luhmann explains: “Changes in social and contact structures are not necessarily negative. For example, social media and internet applications such as Skype could give older, less mobile people the opportunity to stay in contact with their family and friends more frequently than they might have in the past.”

And Luhmann pours cold water on the notion that having children keeps loneliness at bay: “Children are not a guarantee for preventing loneliness – especially if the children live far away,” she elaborates. “Generally, people are less lonely when they have deeper relationships and feel like they belong.”

This is a critical point: Individuals who feel excluded and socially isolated have a higher risk of loneliness, according to a German ageing survey. Poverty also adds to the feeling of not properly belonging, Luhmann adds. – dpa