Loneliness epidemic looms over U.S.
A pervasive health condition associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, high blood pressure, dementia, depression, and premature death has just been registered as an epidemic in the US: loneliness.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation affecting the nation on May 2nd.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a press conference.
“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”
Murthy has long been a proponent of looking at loneliness as an issue of public health. He first discussed his own loneliness and the health impact of loneliness in his book, published in April 2020, at a time when many people’s daily lives and social interactions changed drastically.
He notes that while the pandemic illuminated issues of loneliness and social isolation, statistics show that we’ve been slouching toward loneliness for decades.
Loneliness the result of evolving social trends
The advisory cites polls from 1972 that showed around 45% of Americans felt they could trust other Americans. In 2016, Americans’ trust in each other shrank to 30%. From 2003 to 2020, the time Americans spent alone increased by 24 hours a month, and the time they spent with friends decreased by 20 hours a month.
The trend has particularly affected young people. For those ages 15-24, time spent with friends in-person has decreased by almost 70% over the span of two decades.
One of the reasons for the decline is technology.
“We think about folks who are younger as more connected on technology, whether it’s through their phones or on social media. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are more connected. And in fact, depending on how you use your devices, and how you use social media, sometimes that can actually be harmful to your sense of connections, or to the quality of your connections,” Murthy said in the House Calls Podcast and clarified that there is “no substitute for in-person interaction.”
“As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?”
Changes in family structures and community involvement might also contribute to loneliness in the U.S.
The number of single person households has doubled since 1960 and involvement in traditional community structures, like churches, has decreased by 37% since 1999.
Another factor associated with social isolation is income level. Of the adults who earn less than $50,000 per year, 63% are considered lonely. That percentage is 10% higher than those who earn more than $50,000.
Measuring loneliness is complex, but measuring its health impact is quite clear: Loneliness and isolation contribute to and amplify a range of health problems.
Social isolation is associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of having a stroke. Overall, a lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview.
“Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”
The advisory is not associated with public funding, but offers a framework to remedy loneliness:
Six pillars to advance social connection
- Strengthen social infrastructure in local communities
- Enact pro-connection public policies
- Mobilize the health sector
- Reform digital environments
- Deepen public knowledge about connection and its health benefits
- Build a culture of connection
A cultural movement wrapped in a public health advisory
Unique to previous public health advisories Murthy’s advisory is cultural in nature and a pull away from American cowboy individualism. The calls to action deputize healthcare providers, teachers, and government leaders to promote community in ways that expand beyond traditional community hubs like faith-based organizations.
“We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us—individuals and families, schools and workplaces, health care and public health systems, technology companies, governments, faith organizations, and communities—working together to destigmatize loneliness and change our cultural and policy response to it. It will require reimagining the structures, policies, and programs that shape a community to best support the development of healthy relationships,” Murthy pleads.
“Each of us can start now, in our own lives, by strengthening our connections and relationships. Our individual relationships are an untapped resource—a source of healing hiding in plain sight. They can help us live healthier, more productive, and more fulfilled lives. Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful.
“Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being. But we have the power to respond. By taking small steps every day to strengthen our relationships, and by supporting community efforts to rebuild social connection, we can rise to meet this moment together. We can build lives and communities that are healthier and happier. And we can ensure our country and the world are better poised than ever to take on the challenges that lay ahead.”