Treating loneliness and social isolation may put people classified as obese at a lower risk for health complications, according to a new study.
Loneliness is rampant throughout the world, but the finding is important because people with obesity experience it markedly more, the report said.
“To date, dietary and lifestyle factors are the major focus in preventing obesity related illness,” said Dr. Lu Qi, lead author of the study published Monday in JAMA Network Open, in an email.
“Our study highlights the importance of taking social and mental health into account in improving health for people with obesity,” said Qi, 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 from nearly 400,000 people from the UK BioBank, a large biomedical database and research resource that follows people long-term.
Those included in the research did not have cardiovascular disease when data collection began. Researchers then followed up between March 2006 and November 2021, according to the study.
Over that time, all causes of death for people classified as obese was 36% lower in people who felt less lonely and socially isolated, the data showed.
“It is the time to integrate social and psychological factors into other dietary and lifestyle factors in the development of intervention strategies for preventing obesity related complications,” Qi said.
Social isolation was found to be a greater risk factor for all causes of mortality, including cancer and cardiovascular disease, than depression, anxiety and lifestyle risk factors — which included alcohol, exercise and diet, according to the study.
The results aren’t surprising, said Dr. Philipp Scherer, professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School and Gifford O. Touchstone Jr. and Randolph G. Touchstone Distinguished Chair in Diabetes Research at the Touchstone Diabetes Center in Dallas. Scherer wasn’t involved in the study.
But the findings do point to improving “social isolation as a potential remedy for the reduction of mortality,” he said.
A social network is health promoting
While sometimes not as talked about as diet or exercise, loneliness has been recognized more and more as a major risk factor for poor health outcomes.
People who felt socially isolated were 32% more likely to die early than those who did not, according to a June 2023 study.
“We all may feel lonely from time to time, but when that feeling is permanent, it may act as a form of chronic stress, which is unhealthy,” said Turhan Canli, a professor of integrative neuroscience in the department of psychology at New York’s Stony Brook University, in a previous CNN article.
“One way in which that may occur is through stress hormones that adversely affect the body,” said Canli, who was not involved in the latest research.
The connection between loneliness and poor health outcomes could also lie in a reduced likelihood of socially isolated people getting medical care or a correlation with other unhealthy habits, such as smoking and alcohol use, Canli added.
“Think of maintaining a social network like any other health-promoting activity: exercising regularly, eating well, looking after yourself,” Canli said.
How to start being less lonely
Having so many options to connect with a large online network doesn’t always mean we will be less lonely, said Rachael Benjamin, a licensed clinical social worker at Tribeca Therapy in New York City.
“We need as humans to feel known by other people in order to feel seen — to feel kind of like we exist in the world,” she said.
And even if someone has a lot of interaction with others, it’s easy to feel lonely and isolated if that person doesn’t feel integrated with their community, Benjamin added. And fatphobia can lead communities to make it harder for people with obesity to feel understood and accepted, she said.
Dismantling the bias against them isn’t something one individual can change. But there are steps you can take to try to get more quality relationships, Benjamin said.
What is a quality relationship? It’s one where you can be yourself without pressure to pretend to be someone you are not, she added.
“Two people can feel like they’re both being heard and seen and taken in and can kind of play a little bit,” Benjamin said. “And also feel respected by both people and be honest about how they’re feeling.”
To get there, she first recommends starting with looking inward. Are there ways you are isolating yourself as a source of protection or habit? Then, it is time to start making a new habit: making yourself available to connect with people regularly.
“Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but maybe I’m willing to be braver, willing to kind of take a chance,” Benjamin said.
Lastly, don’t worry if it takes a while to form a solid relationships. Quality connections take time, she added.
“It just takes time and work and effort,” she said.
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