In the age of virtual friendships and social-network overload, there seems to be something conspicuously missing from many lives—face-to-face interaction with real live people. And this lack of personal human connectedness—which has not been remedied by our electronic sidekicks—is now a major Risk Factor for premature death.

The research is in...and it's dire

According to research presented by the American Psychological Association in August 2017, loneliness and social Isolation may be a greater public health threat than obesity. Approximately 42.6 million people over the age of 45 in the United States are suffering from chronic loneliness, according to AARP's loneliness study.

And with more than a quarter of the US population living alone, more than half unmarried, and marriage rates (along with the number of children per household) in decline when compared with the previous census, the trend towards loneliness and isolation does not look like it will reverse course any time soon. Many experts are looking at these trends and suggesting that we are facing a "loneliness epidemic."

The APA-presented research was based on two meta-analyses. The first examined 148 studies involving 300,000 participants and found that increased social connectedness is linked to a whopping 50 percent lower risk of premature death. The other study, examining 3.4 million people across 70 different studies, revealed that social isolation, loneliness, or living alone has as significant or equal an effect on premature mortality as obesity and other risk factors.

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The pain of loneliness and isolation suffered by so many may be invisible, but it is certainly not harmless. Even those with celebrity status and career success can find themselves Lonely in the midst of adoring fans.

The negative effects of loneliness are not reduced with age

The elderly aren't immune to the harm resulting from isolation. Other research has found that loneliness significantly increases the risk of developing alzheimer's-type dementia in older men and women. In the USA, where approximately one in three people over the age of 65 and about one half over 85 live alone, loneliness poses a serious health risk. So much so, that the Institute on Aging in San Francisco operates "The Friendship Line"—a 24-hour, toll-free loneliness call-in line that also operates as a suicide-prevention hotline.

With many nuclear and extended families lacking the strong ties that were typical of previous generations and with technology's complex and controversial role in social and community life today, it is time to refocus on strengthening families and the beneficial ties of face-to-face interaction that we so desperately need for our health and happiness.