New Findings on Loneliness Can Improve Pop Health

July 5, 2019

Newly published research provides insight and direction for health experts seeking to maximize population health and well-being and help alleviate feelings of being disconnected from others.

Newly-published research provides insight and direction for health experts seeking to maximize population health and well-being and help alleviate feelings of being disconnected from others.

In 2018, research conducted by Cigna showed “loneliness” had reached epidemic levels in the U.S., with nearly half (46%) of Americans reporting being “lonely.” Now, results from Cigna’s landmark U.S. Loneliness Index published June 16 in the American Journal of Health Promotion provides actionable insights for improving body and mind health.

Authors Liana DesHarnais Bruce (formerly Castel), PhD, of Cigna and Daniel W. Russell, PhD, of Iowa State University, and developer of the UCLA Loneliness Scale, conducted an analysis of the 2018 Cigna U.S. Loneliness Index study to inform professionals how best to address loneliness. Among the findings that could be used to improve population health:

  • Social media can be a risk or a benefit. Excessive reliance on social media can increase loneliness, but some usage can create a sense of connectedness. 

  • In-person time with family and friends can provide a balance to social media use.

  • Age plays a role, with loneliness decreasing with age.

  • Everyday social behaviors are more strongly related to loneliness than gender, race, or income.

“Our new analysis confirms several nuanced findings about factors associated with loneliness that can help guide health promotion efforts nationally and regionally to combat this increasing public health threat,” Bruce tells Managed Healthcare Executive. “We confirmed that loneliness decreases with age and with being in a relationship, and that everyday behavioral factors within people’s control are most strongly related to loneliness-like having good social support, meaningful everyday interactions, and balancing time spent with friends and family versus using social media.”

Related: Loneliness Is The New Smoking: How Payers And Providers Should Address It

The peer-reviewed publication results from an analytic “deep dive” that provides insights into how managed care providers, employers, and health professionals can partner with individuals to think about healthy social behaviors and social support resources, says Bruce. “Our findings are intended to guide practical design of preventive health benefits and initiatives to decrease loneliness by promoting healthy online and in-person social behaviors.”

One potential solution may be to leverage technology to improve social connections, rather than increase isolation, such as by having institutions sponsor or offer incentives-via social media-for teams of students, employees, or community members promoting athletic fund raisers and contests, according to the authors.

“We see these behavioral health insights as an opportunity to promote health and wellness by engaging individuals who are well in many of the same ways we engage individuals with acute, chronic, or even terminal illness,” says Bruce. “This engagement encompasses continuity, access, management, evidence-based treatment, feasible goals and expectations, shared decision-making, accountability among small support teams, and ongoing quality improvement analytics. Partnering and engaging with individuals is central to all our programs and interventions.”

Other unique findings

The study also found that people with good social support and meaningful daily interactions are less likely to report being lonely.

“So too are people who are in a couple-type relationship, have a strong family life, are in good physical and mental health, have good friendships, and are older, as well as those who balance their daily time well,” she says. “People with higher social anxiety, self-assessed social media overuse, and daily use of text-based social media reported greater loneliness.”

In addition to Bruce and Russell, study authors were Joshua S. Wu, PhD, MA, Stuart L. Lustig, MD, and Douglas A. Nemecek, MD, MBA.