Loneliness and social isolation, prevalent global issues, may play a significant role in mitigating health risks associated with obesity, according to a recent study. The findings are particularly noteworthy as individuals classified as obese tend to experience higher levels of loneliness, according to the report.
Dr. Lu Qi, the lead author of the study published in JAMA Network Open, emphasized the current focus on dietary and lifestyle factors in preventing obesity-related illnesses. However, he highlighted the importance of considering social and mental health to improve the well-being of individuals with obesity. Dr. Qi, a professor and interim chair of the department of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, conveyed this message via email.
The research, drawing data from nearly 400,000 individuals in the UK BioBank, a comprehensive biomedical database, explored the long-term impact of loneliness on health. Participants initially did not have cardiovascular disease when data collection commenced, and the study followed up between March 2006 and November 2021.
The results revealed a notable 36% lower rate of all-cause mortality for individuals classified as obese who reported lower levels of loneliness and social isolation over the study period. Dr. Qi suggested integrating social and psychological factors into intervention strategies to prevent obesity-related complications.
Surprisingly, social isolation emerged as a greater risk factor for all-cause mortality, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, compared to depression, anxiety, and lifestyle risk factors such as alcohol consumption, exercise, and diet.
Dr. Philipp Scherer, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, expressed that while the findings weren’t surprising, they underscored the potential of improving social isolation as a remedy to reduce mortality.
Loneliness, often overshadowed by discussions on diet and exercise, has gained recognition as a major risk factor for poor health outcomes. A study from June 2023 found that socially isolated individuals were 32% more likely to experience premature death than their socially connected counterparts. Chronic loneliness can act as a form of stress, adversely affecting the body through stress hormones, as explained by Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience at Stony Brook University.
Canli suggested that the link between loneliness and poor health outcomes might also be tied to socially isolated individuals having reduced access to medical care or engaging in other unhealthy habits, such as smoking and excessive alcohol use. He emphasized the importance of maintaining a social network as a health-promoting activity, akin to regular exercise and a balanced diet.
Rachael Benjamin, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York City, highlighted that despite the plethora of online connections available, individuals might still feel lonely. Feeling known by others and integrated into the community is crucial for combating loneliness. Benjamin pointed out that fatphobia could make it challenging for people with obesity to feel understood and accepted within their communities.
Addressing bias on an individual level may be challenging, but Benjamin outlined steps to foster quality relationships. She defined a quality relationship as one where individuals can be themselves without the pressure to pretend. Benjamin encouraged self-reflection to identify self-imposed isolation habits and recommended making an effort to connect with people regularly, even if it feels uncomfortable initially. Building quality connections, she noted, takes time, effort, and patience.
The study sheds light on the interconnectedness of social well-being and physical health, particularly for individuals classified as obese. Integrating strategies to alleviate loneliness and social isolation alongside traditional approaches may contribute to more comprehensive efforts in preventing obesity-related complications.