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Extreme loneliness over a long period can be worse for your health than obesity and could lead to an early death, especially among the elderly, according to a new study.

John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, says he found major differences in the rate of decline in physical and mental health between lonely and socially engaged older people, according to a report at Medical News Today.

The report shows that loneliness could have severe health consequences for older people, including disrupted sleep patterns, elevated blood pressure, increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol and heightened depression. Loneliness could also lead to problems with the immune system and generally lower overall feelings of well-being.

Physical isolation is not so much the problem as it is a “subjective sense of isolation” experienced by some older people, the report says. Older people who have satisfying relationships rebound better mentally and physically than lonely older people because they are more able to “bounce back” from adversity, Cacioppo told the site.

“Retiring to Florida to live in a warmer climate among strangers isn’t necessarily a good idea if it means you are disconnected from the people who mean the most to you,” Cacioppo said in Medical News Today. “Population changes make understanding the role of loneliness and health all the more important.”

Extreme loneliness could increase an elderly person’s risk of premature death by 14 percent. The risk factor is nearly as dangerous as a disadvantaged socioeconomic status, which is known to increase death by 19 percent, the report says. Cacioppo also notes that a 2010 study even found that loneliness has twice the impact on early death as obesity.

The findings are important as more and more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. Each day between 2011 and 2030, an average of 10,000 people will turn or have turned 65. “People have to think about how to protect themselves from depression, low subjective well-being and early mortality,” Cacioppo said, according to Medical News Today.