Treating loneliness and social isolation may put people classified as obese at lower risk of developing health complications, a new study shows.
The report said that loneliness is widespread around the world, but this finding is important because people suffering from obesity suffer from it significantly.
“Until now, dietary and lifestyle factors are the main focus in preventing obesity-related diseases,” Dr. Lu Qi, lead author of the study published Monday in JAMA Network Open, said in an email.
“Our study highlights the importance of taking social and mental health into account in improving the health of people with obesity,” said Chi, a professor and interim chair of the Department of Epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans.
The study looked at data on nearly 400,000 people from the UK Biobank, a large biomedical database and research resource that follows people over the long term.
The subjects in the study did not have cardiovascular disease when data collection began. The researchers then followed up between March 2006 and November 2021, according to the study.
The data showed that during that period, all-cause deaths for people classified as obese were 36% lower among people who felt less lonely and socially isolated.
“It is time to integrate social and psychological factors with other nutritional and lifestyle factors in developing intervention strategies to prevent obesity-related complications,” Qi said.
The study found that social isolation is a greater risk factor for all causes of death, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, than depression, anxiety and lifestyle risk factors, which include alcohol, exercise and diet.
Dr. Philip Scherer, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, and Gifford O. Touchstone Jr. and Randolph J. Touchstone, MD, distinguished chair of diabetes research at the Touchstone Diabetes Center in Dallas, said the findings are not surprising. Scherer was not involved in the study.
But he said the results point to improving “social isolation as a potential treatment to reduce mortality.”
While sometimes not as talked about as diet or exercise, loneliness has been increasingly recognized as a major risk factor for poor health outcomes.
People who felt socially isolated were 32% more likely to die prematurely than those who did not, according to a June 2023 study.
“We may all feel lonely from time to time, but when that feeling is constant, it may serve as a form of chronic stress, which is unhealthy,” said Turhan Canlı, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at New York University. Stony Brook University, in a previous CNN article.
“One way this might happen is through stress hormones that negatively affect the body,” said Canley, who was not involved in the latest research.
The link between loneliness and poor health outcomes could also lie in socially isolated people being less likely to seek medical care or associated with other unhealthy habits, such as smoking and alcohol use, Canley added.
“Think of maintaining a social network like any other health-promoting activity: exercise regularly, eat well, and take care of yourself,” Canley said.
Having plenty of options to connect with a large network online doesn’t always mean we’ll be less lonely, said Rachel Benjamin, a licensed clinical social worker based in New York City.
“We as human beings need to feel known by others in order to feel seen, to feel like we exist in this world,” she said.
Benjamin added that even if someone has a lot of interaction with others, it is easy to feel lonely and isolated if that person does not feel included with their community. Fatphobia can lead societies to make it difficult for people with obesity to feel understood and accepted, she said.
Dismantling the bias against them is not something one individual can change. But there are steps you can take to try to have more quality relationships, Benjamin says.
What is a qualitative relationship? “It’s a place where you can be yourself without the pressure to pretend to be someone different,” she added.
“Two people can feel like they’re being heard and seen and understood and they can play a little bit,” Benjamin said. “I also feel respected by both people and be honest about how they feel.”
To get there, she recommends first starting by looking inward. Are there ways you isolate yourself as a source of protection or habit? Next, it’s time to start creating a new habit: making yourself available to connect with people regularly.
“It may be uncomfortable, but maybe I’m willing to be braver, willing to take a chance,” Benjamin said.
Finally, don’t worry if it takes time to build a strong relationship. High-quality communications take time, she added.
“It just takes time, work and effort,” she added.