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Public unaware of social isolation risk to life expectancy

People still aren’t hearing the message that social isolation poses a serious threat to health, researchers warn.

While the issue has been shown to pose a greater health threat than smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise, a new study shows that people remain largely unaware of the importance of social connectedness for health.

Researchers led by Professor Alex Haslam from the University of Queensland surveyed more than 500 people from the US and the UK to assess their views about the importance of social and behavioural risk factors for life expectancy.

Haslam said although research shows that lack of social integration and support are the most important determinants of mortality, people tend to see them as among the least important:
only around 15 per cent of people in the study saw these social factors to be as important for mortality as they actually are.

“Men, younger participants, and those with a lower level of education were more likely to underestimate the importance of social factors for health, as were people who believed in the importance of authority and convention,” Haslam said.

Haslam called for public education campaigns like those encouraging people to quit smoking, exercise more and have a healthy diet.

There must also be a shift from viewing health as something purely physical and medical, he said. “We know from a wealth of previous research that people who are more socially connected live longer and have better health than those who are socially isolated.”

He pointed to a study recently published in Psychological Science that showed loneliness increased the risk of premature death by about 30 per cent. “As alarming as the evidence is about the detrimental health effects of social isolation, the message clearly isn’t getting through.”

Some work is being done to remedy the issue. Haslam said: “In the UK, for example, there is a strong push to encourage GPs to offer ‘social prescribing’ as part of their treatment for patients with a range of conditions including stress, trauma, depression, addiction, eating disorders and brain injury." It's also suggested for people in later life.

“Social prescribing focuses on building people’s social connections by linking them with social or physical activities in their community such as local sports, arts and voluntary organisations," Haslam added. “This new way of treating health conditions has been shown in our ongoing research to have a wide range of benefits.”

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