Loneliness Is an Epidemic. Can We Fix It?
Researchers are rethinking how to tackle loneliness in America.
When Vivek Murthy became the Surgeon General in 2014, he didn’t consider loneliness a public health concern. Traveling the country changed his mind.
“People began to tell me that they felt isolated, invisible, and insignificant,” he recalls in a recent letter. “Even when they couldn’t put their finger on the world ‘lonely,’ time and time again, people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, from every corner of the country, would tell me, ‘I have to shoulder all of life’s burdens by myself’ or ‘if I disappear tomorrow, no one will even notice.’”
Murthy describes loneliness and isolation as an epidemic — and a new Surgeon General Advisory calls it a public health crisis. Julianne Holt-Lunstad is a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and the top scientific editor of the Advisory. She tells me the point is to highlight the growing evidence of the dire health consequences of loneliness. It is, she and her colleagues argue, a public health emergency in urgent need of a fix.
The way forward, Holt-Lunstad explains, is a strategy that focuses on society at large — not telling individual people that they need to work out how to be less lonely.
“For far too long there has been too much burden placed on individuals to solve this alone, despite many underlying causes being outside an individual’s control,” Holt-Lunstad says.
Is loneliness an epidemic?
Study after study shows loneliness and isolation aren’t just unpleasant; they have a profound effect on physical and mental health. A lack of social connection can increase the risk of premature death by more than 60 percent. It is, the Advisory states, “as dangerous as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”
Loneliness is also associated with a 29 percent higher odds of heart disease and a 32 percent increased risk of stroke. Even after controlling for demographics and overall health status, chronic loneliness and social isolation can still up older adults’ risk of developing dementia by 50 percent. Some research has even found the brain responds to loneliness in similar ways to how it hunger.
Depression and anxiety can also lead to loneliness — and loneliness can result in anxiety and depression. The inverse is also true: Confiding in others is linked to a 15 percent reduced odds of developing depression among people already at risk of experiencing it due to trauma and other difficult life experiences.
The reality is that people are becoming lonelier. The rate of loneliness among young adults has increased every year between 1976 and 2019. In 2018, just 16 percent of Americans reported that they felt very attached to their local community, according to the Advisory. Several social connection national trends between the years 2003 and 2020 speak to this:
- Social engagement with friends has decreased by 20 hours per month
- Companionship — shared leisure for the sake of pure enjoyment — has decreased by 14 hours a month
- Social isolation overall has increased by 24 hours a month
Can we “solve” loneliness?
It is tempting to think that it’s up to an individual to be less lonely. But while you can do some things to help — like practicing gratitude or seeking out opportunities to see friends or volunteer to help others — they won’t end the epidemic. Instead, the Advisory recommends a holistic alternative that involves multiple different stakeholders, like governments, scientists, or educators.
Social connections can also be fostered by workplaces, community-based organizations, technology companies, and even media and entertainment.
Quality social connections depend on multiple factors, including the size of one’s social circle, how these relationships serve various needs, and one’s satisfaction with those relationships.
The Advisory outlines “six pillars of social connection” as a way to bridge between those factors and the stakeholders who can influence them. For example, one pillar is all about strengthening the “social infrastructure” of local communities. This means establishing community programs and investing in local institutions that bring people together.
Another pillar is more about what the health sector can do: The Advisory recommends training healthcare providers on how to assess and help people suffering from isolation, and calls for the expansion of public health surveillance and interventions.
The tech sector can also help: The Advisory observes a need to “reform digital environments.” Put into practice this means more data transparency, establishing and implementing safety standards, and developing pro-connection technologies.
The sixth pillar is more philosophical but is just as — or even more so — important than the others. It’s about cultivating a “culture of connection” where we value kindness, respect, and service to each other.
“The informal practices of everyday life — the norms and culture of how we engage one another — significantly influence social connection,” the Advisory states.