PROVO (News4Utah) — Typically when we think about our health, we factor in our diet and how much we exercise, but researchers at Brigham Young University say it’s important to also factor in our relationships. Our social connections can impact our overall health, too.

Roughly 120 studies involving nearly 3.5 million people worldwide show loneliness is becoming more prevalent.

The studies correlate available, published and applicable data consisting of participants living in industrialized countries.

Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality. 

Living alone, having few social network ties, and having infrequent social contact are all markers of social isolation.

Loneliness is the perception of social isolation, or the subjective experience of being lonely, and thus involves necessarily subjective measurement.

Loneliness has also been described as the dissatisfaction with the discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships

“We now have robust evidence that our social relationships can have a profound affect on our health either for good or for bad,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at BYU.

BYU Professor of Counseling Psychology, Timothy Smith, says stress can cause health problems.

“When our bodies feel stressed, we react with neurochemicals, so our body is using resources to combat that stress that could be used towards building cell structures, maintaining, existing physiological processes, and so unfortunately stress uses resources that could be better used in maintaining our health,” said Smith.

However, experts say it’s not only about the presence or absence of people in our lives.

“It’s about having positive, meaningful, close relationships,” said Holt-Lunstad.

Research shows a lack of social connection can be as damaging as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.

“Overall, people understand that some factors predict death, but what they haven’t understood is that social factors are even more predictive of death than things like obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels,” said Smith. “People find this surprising but it’s the truth.”

When we stress, hormones flood our bodies and cells break down. Cellular function decreases, and our blood pressure increases. This can incur several negative health risks.

“For a person who feels lonely, that causes emotional distress,” said Smith. “That stress to the brain is the same as if it was physical distress. The brain cannot tell the difference, so it treats it like a physical stressor. It responds accordingly, and so the organs start to work less properly.”

Loneliness can also induce emotional and psychological consequences. With this information, researchers conclude: we need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.

“Just as we make time in our busy lives to be physically active, we need to make time in our busy lives to be socially active,” said Holt-Lunstad.

Here is some advice to help people become less lonely:

  1. Develop meaningful relationships 
  2. Seek more face-to-face contact
  3. Limit the alerts you receive on social media platforms
  4. Limit the time spent on social media and technological devices
  5. Realize you’re not alone
  6. Make a plan to fight the mental and emotional habits of loneliness
  7. Find others like you
  8. Spend more time with your family
  9. Focus on the needs and feelings of others
  10. Realize that loneliness is a feeling, not a fact

Researchers also note social media does have positive attributes. They stress the importance of using the tool to genuinely connect with others, instead of seeking a superficial connection.