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Research Suggests Loneliness Is As Bad for You as Smoking Nearly a Pack of Cigarettes a Day

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Humans are social animals. That means that our friendships, family, and other social networks are not just pleasures; they're also essential to our survival. New research presented at the 125th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association finds that loneliness and isolation may be bigger public health issues than previously realized.

"Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need—crucial to both well-being and survival," psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University said in a statement.

"Extreme examples show infants in custodial care who lack human contact fail to thrive and often die, and indeed, social isolation or solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment."

A 2010 AARP study of adults aged 45 and up found that more than one-third of respondents felt lonely, and that loneliness and poor health went hand in hand.

To quantify the impact of loneliness and isolation, Holt-Lunstad conducted two separate meta-analyses of the scientific literature, reviewing a total of 218 studies. Her first analysis found that higher social connectedness is linked to as much as a 50 percent decrease in risk of early death.

The second, which included data from more than 3.4 million people in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, suggests that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone can be as bad for a person's health as other common risks. (The AARP study also concluded that prolonged isolation carries the same health risks as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.)

"There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," Holt-Lunstad said.

"With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a 'loneliness epidemic.' The challenge we face now is what can be done about it."

To combat loneliness, experts recommend strengthening existing relationships, scheduling regular phone dates with friends, and signing up to volunteer or otherwise help build community.

Carla Perissinotto is a geriatrician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco. "Maintaining connections, that touchy-feely thing, is actually really important," she told NPR. "It's hard to measure, it's hard to quantify, but there is something real."

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Netherlands Officials Want to Pay Residents to Bike to Work
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Thinking about relocating to the Netherlands? You might also want to bring a bike. Government officials are looking to compensate residents for helping solve their traffic congestion problem and they want businesses to pay residents to bike to work, as The Independent reports.

Owing to automobile logjams on roadways that keep drivers stuck in their cars and cost the economy billions of euros annually, Dutch deputy infrastructure minister Stientje van Veldhoven recently told media that she's endorsing a program that would pay employees 19 cents for every kilometer (0.6 miles) they bike to work.

That doesn't sound like very much, but perhaps citizens who need to trek several miles each way would appreciate the cumulative boost in their weekly paychecks. For employers, the benefit would be a healthier workforce that might take fewer sick days and reduce parking needs.

Veldhoven says she also plans on designing a program that would assist employers in supplying workers with bicycles. The goal is to have 200,000 people opting for manual transportation over cars. If the program proceeds, it might find a receptive population. The Netherlands is already home to 22.5 million bikes, more than the 17.1 million people living there. In Amsterdam, a quarter of residents bike to work.

There's no timeline for implementing the pay-to-bike plan, but early trial studies indicate that the expense might not have to be a long-term prospect. Study subjects continued to bike to work even after the financial rewards stopped.

[h/t The Independent]

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New Health-Monitoring Litter Box Could Save You a Trip to the Vet
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Unsure if your cat is sick or just acting aloof per usual? A “smart toilet” for your fur baby could help you decide whether a trip to the vet is really necessary.

Enter the Pet Care Monitor: More than a litter box, the receptacle is designed to analyze cat urine for health issues, The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo reports. Created by the Japan-based Sharp Corporation—better known for consumer electronics such as TVs, mobile phones, and the world's first LCD calculator—the product will be available for purchase on the company’s website starting July 30 (although shipping limitations may apply).

Sensors embedded in the monitor can measure your cat’s weight and urine volume, as well as the frequency and duration of toilet trips. That information is then analyzed by an AI program that compares it to data gleaned from a joint study between Sharp Corp and Tottori University in Japan. If there are any red flags, a report will be sent directly to your smartphone via an application called Cocoro Pet. The monitor could be especially useful for keeping an eye on cats with a history of kidney and urinary tract problems.

If you have several cats, the company offers sensors to identify each pet, allowing separate data sets to be collected and analyzed. (Each smart litter box can record the data of up to three cats.)

The Pet Care Monitor costs about $225, and there’s an additional monthly fee of roughly $3 for the service. Sharp Corporation says it will continue developing health products for pets, and it has already created a leg sensor that can tell if a dog is nervous by measuring its heart and respiratory rates.

[h/t The Asahi Shimbun]

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