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The biggest health threat facing middle-aged men is loneliness

For middle-aged men, feeling lonely all the time can be as bad or worse for long-term health as heavy drinking or gaining too much weight.
/ Source: TODAY

Two weeks ago, I took an epic trip to Salt Lake City with four of my old college friends to watch the Northwestern University men's basketball team play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history.

As we were saying our goodbyes before heading to the airport, my friend Josh said, "So, we'll see each other again in what, like 2028?"

Yes, middle-aged guys are lazy and don't spend time setting things up with friends like women seem to easily do, but it hadn't been that long since I had seen Josh and my friend Stewart, had it?

Then I did the math. It had been nine years.

We wouldn't admit it right there in front of each other because it would've been too corny, but this was a rare chance to reconnect with friends at a time of our lives when they seem like they're in short supply.

Apparently we're not the only ones, as the issue of loneliness has become a growing health problem affecting one in five Americans, according to a 2015 study by researchers at Brigham Young University. And I'm certainly not the first to write about it — a Boston Globe reporter recently chronicled his experience.

Scott Stump and friends
That's me, second from the left, with friends I hadn't seen in a while... OK, nine years to be exact.Scott Stump

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For middle-aged men, feeling lonely all the time can be as bad or worse for long-term health as heavy drinking or gaining too much weight. My friends and I just turned 40 within the past year and have lives variously consumed by careers, spouses and children, so we're edging into that high-risk category.

"It's a risk factor with consequences about the same size as obesity, and the prevalence is comparable,'' John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist and co-author of the book "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection," told TODAY.

Regular feelings of loneliness can increase mortality risk by 26 percent, according to a meta-analysis of studies, Cacioppo noted.

RELATED: Why is it so hard to make mid-life friends?

When it comes to loneliness, I understand the notion of thinking you're a loser for feeling like you never spend time with friends. I experience it doubly because, like many of the 35 percent of U.S. workers who are freelancers, I work from home, so there's not even the social interaction that an office provides.

However, Cacioppo said the "I'm a loser" feeling misses the point.

"We tend to think loneliness is not being popular, not having friends, being a loser, but none of those are true,'' he said. "We've done population-based research and when we manipulate loneliness, people's social skills go down."

"The reason they go down is because your brain goes into a self-preservation mode because we're fundamentally social creatures."

According to Cacioppo, loneliness essentially acts as a warning system that tells us we need to be more social in order to protect ourselves from harm and generally enjoy all the benefits of survival.

Still, loneliness isn't exactly a topic that pops up in conversation. The main reason I wouldn't talk to other guys about how I feel like a loser is because I wouldn't want to sound like ... A loser.

"Men in particular have this misconception that if you complain about that, you're weak-minded,'' Cacioppo said.

I also tend to overthink the issue. My wife and I don't have children (still working on that), and I often hesitate to reach out to friends who have kids because I just assume they have no time to hang out. Plus, I worry about their wives being upset at me because I took them away from family time for two hours to watch the Mets game.

Then, there's the worry about spending enough time with my own family and my wife so that they don't feel neglected.

For guys looking to combat loneliness, Cacioppo offered some tips.

1. You have to extend yourself.

That means going beyond posting on a friend's Facebook page or commenting on an Instagram photo. Using social media as a means to connect in real life will make you less lonely, while using it solely to amass the most likes and comments will make you more lonely.

2. Find people with similar interests.

You're more inclined to spend time with people who enjoy the same things you do, so seek them out. That could mean volunteering in a local sports league or training for a specific event together, but you have to make the effort to find them and get involved.

3. Find friends who want to spend time with you for reasons beyond material benefits.

There's a reason billionaires hang out with billionaires and professional athletes keep their friends from childhood — they know they don't want anything from each other besides friendship.

My simple addition would be the group text. Normally, being added to a group text makes me want to throw my phone into the ocean, but it can be a good way to stay connected if used in moderation.

My friends from the Salt Lake City trip have been using it while any of us might be watching an NCAA Tournament game.

We're already talking about next year's trip.

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.