MENTAL HEALTH

Dr. Keith Ablow: Loneliness is now more deadly than obesity. And we still don't we have a plan to reduce it

Keith Ablow

Speaking recently at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, wisely focused on the toll that loneliness is taking on Americans. 

Dr. Holt-Lunstad presented findings culled from two massive 2010 analyses of data from hundreds of studies involving millions of individuals. Among the data: Social isolation, loneliness or living alone was each a significant factor contributing to premature death.  And each one of these factors was a more significant risk factor for dying than obesity.

Think about that: Loneliness now eclipses obesity as a cause of premature death in America. The AARP estimates that 42.6 million Americans over the age of 45 are suffering from loneliness, with nearly one quarter of the population living alone, marriage rates declining and the number of children per family dropping. 

And we don't have any credible plan to reduce loneliness. In fact, all indications are that it will continue to rise.

We're increasingly a people who pose. And posing leaves the poser and his or her audience feeling empty--and alone.

No one knows precisely why loneliness is surging, threatening the lives of many millions of people, but it does seem that the burgeoning use of technology may have something to do with it.  Personally, I would contend that technology may be the chief factor fueling it.

Multiple studies have indicated that frequent Facebook users don't feel more connected to others; they actually experience feelings of loneliness, decreased self-esteem and depression. 

I believe the same will prove true of Snapchat and Tinder.

Apps aren't the only offenders. With email and texting replacing phone calls (and even phone voice messages), the ability to rapidly share written thoughts has disembodied our communications with one another, sucking the intonation and warmth out of much of our day-to-day communication. 

You can't really say, "I miss you," through text, in the same way you would say it by phone--sounding earnest, or, perhaps, even melancholy. You can't say you love someone through text the same way you would say it--provided you really meant it--by phone (never mind, in person).

Emails lack the humanity of typed letters, let alone handwritten correspondence (which has all but disappeared from our interpersonal repertoire). 

When the daughter of a friend of mine received a postcard from her friend vacationing in Europe, I watched her exclaim, "She sent me a postcard!" Then, she grimaced slightly, squinting at the cursive writing. "Wait, I think it's by a computer . . ."   She moistened the tip of her finger and ran it over the characters.  "Yeah," she said, obviously a little dejected, "it doesn't smudge.  She must have sent it to a bunch of people.  It looked so real.  Well, at least she didn't just text."

That young woman's disappointment at the loss of some part of the potential human, feeling connection between her and her friend may not be catastrophic, but it is happening to millions upon millions of people trillions of times a day. And I believe these trillions of micro-doses of estrangement are exacting a human toll.

"LOL," the omnipresent reply to a text or Snapchat communication, may mean someone is actually laughing, I suppose, but, more often, it probably means the person texting it is mildly amused. It may even be a complete lie, hiding a person's actual disdain for what he or she has just received.

We're increasingly a people who pose. And posing leaves the poser and his or her audience feeling empty--and alone.

Add to this the number of people opting for virtual reality--whether simulated games or simulated sex or simulated travel--and the gravitational pull of technology toward a solitary existence would seem evident.

Marshall McLuhan, the genius who authored the classic "Understanding Media," wrote, "The medium is the message." 

As an unintended side effect of using technology, with all its scale and convenience, we may well be communicating to one another--and to ourselves--that we don't really value one another enough to visit, or write to one another by hand or call one another by phone. And the toll of this micro-dosing of estrangement--as incredible as it may sound--may well be early death for millions of us. 

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team.