CBS Local — According to a new study, loneliness and social isolation is a greater public health problem for Americans than obesity. Researchers say people with a greater social connection cut their risk of premature death in half.

“Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need — crucial to both well-being and survival,” says Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University. “An increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad added in the American Psychological Association release.

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The study looked at the effects of social isolation, loneliness, and living alone on a person’s health for nearly four million people. Researchers reportedly found that all three factors had a significant effect on the risk of premature death and in some cases exceeded obesity as a major risk factor.

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Holt-Lunstad cited a recent AARP study that estimated that 43 million Americans over the age of 45 were suffering from chronic loneliness. “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase,” the professor said.

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Other recent studies have echoed Dr. Holt-Lunstad’s findings and pointed to the growing use of social media as a possible cause. A study, led by University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, suggested that the more time young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to feel isolated.