Loneliness and Isolation Present Serious Mortality Risks — Antidote Found in Acts of Kindness

We all know what things can kill us: smoking, drinking alcohol, not exercising, having an unhealthy diet, not getting enough sleep, the list goes on and on. But did you know that being lonely is just as risky? 

In February of 2020, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) declared, “Social isolation is a major public health concern.” Just one month later, the coronavirus pandemic forced people worldwide to deliberately isolate and distance themselves socially. 

Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at BYU, studies the power of social connection on mental and physical health. Her research has built a body of evidence proving exactly what NASEM stated: that society should be very concerned about the risks of isolation and loneliness. 

“Loneliness is associated with increased death by 26%. Conversely, another meta-analysis that included 148 studies, examined the protective effects of being socially connected and we found that social connection increases our odds of survival by 50%,” said Holt-Lunstad as she presented the 29th annual Martin B. Hickman Outstanding Scholar Lecture. 

Her research also reveals that social isolation and loneliness are associated with greater incidents of major psychological, cognitive, and physical morbidities. Holt-Lunstad’s research is now focused on the relationship between the physical symptoms of loneliness and harmful inflammation. 

The global pandemic exacerbated this already urgent health concern. Holt-Lunstad described it like this: “Loneliness was prevalent prior to the pandemic, but increased in prevalence and severity over the pandemic.” Individuals living alone and older adults seemed to be most isolated, but longitudinal studies showed that the pandemic increased feelings of loneliness among most people.  

We take certain aspects of physical health seriously because there are national health guidelines. Recommendations from experts for how to eat, how often to exercise, how much sleep we need, etc. are taught in schools and by doctors when we get check-ups. 

So if loneliness and isolation present serious mortality risks, why don’t we hear about it more often? Why aren’t there school programs like D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) teaching kids about the risks of isolation?

C.S. Lewis stated, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which gives value to survival.” Lewis’ point of view describes how many people, including public policy makers, perceive loneliness. Social connection can seem more like a bonus than a necessity, but meaningful connection with others can be just as important for mental and physical well being as drinking enough water.

Loneliness is our body giving a biological signal that we need to socially reconnect. Just like hunger and thirst remind us to eat and drink, loneliness reminds us how vital meaningful relationships are for our health.

Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues are working to find widespread solutions to the loneliness and isolation epidemic through public policy and regulation, but she emphasizes the importance of small actions that can improve social connection. 

She and her colleagues ran a study during the pandemic in which nearly 4,500 participants were randomly assigned challenges to connect socially. Participants were told to perform one act of kindness for a neighbor once a week for four weeks. The study found that when individuals actively chose to reach out to neighbors in a positive way, they became significantly less lonely, social anxiety was reduced, neighborhood quality improved, and conflict reduced.

The results of the study showed that a social connection intervention can be performed with no resources or training; anyone can take action and improve the social connection in their life.

Holt-Lunstad concluded with an invitation: “All I ask is that you take a moment to do something kind for someone else, because our evidence shows that one of the best ways to help yourself is to help others.”

The Hickman Lecture is presented annually by a faculty member who received the Martin B. Hickman Scholar Award for being a distinguished faculty member whose professional contributions to the college emulate excellence. Learn from previous outstanding faculty members here.

Learn more about Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s research at julianneholtlunstad.byu.edu.

Passion for life, passion for others: 2018 Hickman lecture to teach the place for passion

Life is a constant search for balance.

Especially in religious living, it can be difficult to find a place for passion. But passion for what we love improves our minds and makes relationships beautiful.

At the 2018 Martin B. Hickman Lecture on Thursday, November 1 at 11 a.m. in 250 KMBL, BYU School of Family Life Professor Dean Busby will speak on how we can appropriately use passion to foster appreciation for life and loved ones in his lecture “The Place of Passion in Our Lives and Our Relationships.” The lecture is a free event and is open to the public.

Professor Busby has a Ph. D. in Family Therapy from Brigham Young University and taught Syracuse University and Texas Tech University before returning to BYU. Since his return, he has played a prominent role in the School of Family Life as the Graduate Coordinator of the Marriage, Family, and Human Development M.S. and Ph. D. programs, as well as the Director of the School of Family Life.

The lecture is in honor of Martin Berkeley Hickman, a BYU political science professor who served as the dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences from 1970-1986. He helped make possible the Women’s Research Institute, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies and the Family Studies Center. As for teaching, Hickman is recognized as the father of BYU’s American Heritage program. Hickman was renowned for his loyalty and dedication to his family, the Church, the college and BYU.

The Martin B. Hickman Scholar Award is given annually to recognize a notable college faculty who follows Hickman’s example of service and dedication.

Psychological effects of critical illness: Hickman Lecture 2018

The effects of a critical illness can impact your life and the lives of your loved ones years after the illness itself ends.

1109-15 Hopkins, Ramona 05Ramona Hopkins, director of the BYU Neuroscience Center, will address this relevant and personal topic at the 25th Annual Martin B. Hickman Outstanding Scholar Lecture. Her lecture, titled “Effects of Critical Illness on Patients and Families,” will expound on Post-Intensive Care Syndrome and how critical illness impacts both patients and family caregivers’ cognitive and psychological functions.

The lecture will be held on Thursday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in room 250 in the KMBL (SWKT). Light refreshments will be served after the event.

Dr. Ramona Hopkins has led and served the college in neuroscience and psychology for almost 20 years. She has multiple degrees in both nursing and psychology and uses her knowledge and leadership to direct the Neuroscience Center and to teach psychology and neuroscience. She is the recipient of a number of awards from BYU including the Young Scholar Award in 2004, the Karl G. Maeser Research and Creative Arts Award in 2010, the 2011 Jack Bailey Teaching and Learning Faculty Fellowship and the 2013 Sponsored Research Recognition Award.

The lecture is in honor of Martin Berkeley Hickman, a BYU political science professor who served as the dean of the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences from 1970-1986. As the dean, Hickman was instrumental in helping the college become what it is today by unifying the College of Social Sciences with parts of the College of Family Living. He also helped make possible the Women’s Research Institute, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies and the Family Studies Center. As for teaching, Hickman is recognized as the father of BYU’s American Heritage program as he organized, presided over, and helped instruct the course. Hickman was renown for his loyalty and dedication to his family, the Church, the college and BYU.

The Martin B. Hickman Scholar Award is given annually to recognize a notable college faculty who follows Hickman’s example of service and dedication.


Hickman Lecture: Air Pollution Myths and Facts

Air pollution continues to be a problem in Utah and around the world, but the extent of that problem, both actual and understood, seems to vary widely. C. Arden Pope III, a professor of Economics at BYU, in the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences, spoke on the top 10 things skeptics, whether members of the public or policy makers, tend to ask about air pollution and health at a recent lecture, given as part of the Hickman series. In lay man’s terms, and with witty phrases and jokes, he captivated the audience of students, friends, faculty, and Hickman family members. Pope is the Mary Lou Fulton Professor of Economics at BYU. Pope has authored or coauthored about 200 research articles on the subject of air pollution and its effects on health. These articles have received over 62 thousand citations, making Pope one of the world’s most cited and recognized experts on health effects of air pollution.

Top 10 Controversies about air pollution

photo taken by David Holt, used under Creative Commons



1CaptureWas London’s smog romantic or deadly?

Many classical paintings included smog and smoke and a hazy view of London. In the 1930-1950’s, pollution was so high that thousands died, so it was indisputable that air pollution was detrimental.

Smog is deadly.

2CaptureCan short-term, moderate levels of air pollution hurt people?

In Utah, Geneva Steel puffed pollutants in to the sky into the 1980’s. Then, Geneva Steel closed for 13 months. Once it reopened, a pattern emerged. Hospital admittance of children with asthma doubled when the mill was opened.

Further research revealed a correlation between daily death count (of respiratory and cardiovascular) and air pollution levels. The more polluted the air, the more people died. Air pollution is also associated with hospitalizations, lung infections, school absences, symptoms of respiratory illness, ischemic heart disease, cardiac-autonomic function, and more.

More researchers, such as John Samet, did similar studies in many cities all over the world.

Any level of air pollution is harmful.

3CaptureCan long-term exposure to air pollution significantly contribute to disease or death?

After much research with many colleagues, Pope proposed new ambient air quality standards for the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce in 1997. Many people resisted and there was a call that other scientists confirm Pope’s data. These studies confirmed the accuracy of the data. Other countries replicated these studies as well.

Long-term exposure to air pollution contributes to disease and death.

4CaptureDoes reducing air pollution improve heath and mortality?

Pope said that there is almost a 25 percent improvement rate of health and mortality when air quality is improved. He referenced several other studies which confirmed this research.

Reducing air pollution improves health and mortality.

5CaptureDoes a save threshold for air pollution exist?

Is there any level of air pollution that will not harm a person? The answer seems to be no. Pope’s research taught him that there is no evidence of such a threshold. There has been research done to answer this question all over the world, and the conclusion is the same.

“We just never could see any evidence of a safe threshold,” Pope said.

6CaptureWhy aren’t all the smokers dead?

Skeptics have asked: “if it is so bad to breathe air pollution, why aren’t all the people who smoke dead? Pope’s research and studies did not find a definitive answer. He did find that there are “not linear-diminishing marginal effects.” There are too many other factors to be able to conclude or not conclude something so linear.

7CaptureAre these health effects biologically plausible?

Air pollution leads to damage of the endothelial lining of the lungs. Damage to the lining can lead to diseases. Endothelial disease kills people the most if it leads to heart attacks.  Pope did studies with BYU student volunteers to measure the healthiness of endothelial in the lungs. BYU is a great place for this study, because BYU students do not smoke, they just live in a polluted area.

Pope learned that there is still much to be learned, but it is plausible.

“Basically, you have more damage [in the lungs], and less repair” because of air pollution, Pope said.

8CaptureAren’t air pollution health effects small in comparison to other risk factors?

“OK, so what?” asked skeptics. Pope said he learned from other’s research that what we eat, drink, and breathe impacts our health. Air pollution is a big influence.

In comparison to other risk factors, the negative health effects of air pollution are substantial.

9CaptureWon’t cleaning up air pollution be too expensive to fix? Won’t it hurt the economy?

Pope said that as an economist, he believes that cleaning up the air pollution will help the economy. “The benefits of improving our air quality are substantial,” Pope said. “These benefits are almost unbelievable, unimaginable.” He was adamant that any claim of damage to an economy caused by the cleaning up of an area’s air pollution is false. Improved air quality would also encourage more people to move to and visit Utah, which would boost the economy.

“It does appear that we can have a thriving economy and clean air,” Pope said.

10CaptureHow much evidence is needed before efforts to have clean air are no longer controversial?

“I have no more slides,” Pope said at the conclusion of his lecture.salt_lake_city_smog_haze_skyline_01


Upcoming Hickman Lecture: Top 10 Scientific & Public Policy Controversies Regarding Air Pollution and Health

 Utah is infamous for it’s poor air quality, particularly during the early Winter months. The American Lung Association gave Utah County in particular an “F” in overall air quality in its 2016 State of the Air report. No county in Utah received higher than a C grade. Curious what you can do to make the air you breathe cleaner? Dr. C Arden Pope of the FHSS economics department will explain public policy and scientific differences regarding Utah’s air quality.
Dr. C. Arden Pope will speak on “Air Pollution and Health: Top 10 Scientific and Public Policy Controversies” for the 24th annual Martin B. Hickman Lecture.

C. Arden Pope, III is one of the world’s most cited and recognized experts on health effects of air pollution and has served on and/or chaired various scientific advisory and oversight boards and committees including: U.S. EPA Science Advisory Board and Chair of the U.S. EPA Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis.
imgDr. Pope is the Mary Lou Fulton Professor of Economics at Brigham Young University. He has a PhD from Iowa State University (1981), was a Fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health (1992/93), and an Honorary Fellow of the American College of Chest Physicians (2008). He has conducted or collaborated on seminal studies on health effects of air pollution and has authored or coauthored approximately 200 research articles. Dr. Pope received multiple research and teaching awards.
*Featured photo taken by Eltiempo10 on Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons