Doctors must screen patients for social isolation to address 'loneliness epidemic'

More Americans are lonely and socially isolated, a fact doctors shouldn't ignore when screening patients.

More Americans are experiencing loneliness and social isolation, factors that put their health at risk.

As a result, doctors must include social connectedness in their medical screenings for patients, said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, in a presentation at the 125th annual convention of the American Psychological Association.

Loneliness and social isolation may be even greater threats to public health than obesity and other risk factors, according to an announcement from the association about her research.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival,” Holt-Lunstad said, adding that an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation on a regular basis.

RELATED: In 'Bold Goal' initiative, Humana turns focus to surprising health issue: Loneliness

She cited statistics from the U.S. census that show more than a quarter of Americans live alone, more than half the population is unmarried, and marriage rates and the number of children per household has declined. As people retire, they also lose the connections they have in the workplace.

Social isolation puts people at risk for premature mortality, she said, presenting data from two meta-analyses. The evidence shows many countries are facing a “loneliness epidemic,” she said.

Doctors can play a role in tackling the public health threat by asking patients about their social connections, she said. They can recommend patients use recreation centers and other social spaces that encourage people to gather and interact.

Patients who are socially isolated are more likely to get sick. For some patients, regular visits with a doctor may be among their only social interactions, so some health experts have called on physicians to measure loneliness like any other vital sign and assess it as part of a patient’s overall health. Phone calls, home visits or community programs can help patients and keep them healthier.