The U.S. Surgeon General Just Announced a Loneliness Epidemic

Half of Americans report loneliness. Public health officials call it an epidemic that poses a risk as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

By now, we know that there is a loneliness epidemic in American life. We also know that loneliness has been exacerbated by social media and recent quarantines during the pandemic. The physical health consequences of poor or insufficient connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Loneliness is 20% more deadly than obesity. Additionally, lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%. Some studies suggest that the health toll of loneliness might be as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Quite simply, loneliness can shorten your life.

This week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a new advisory, calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation and lack of connection in our country. Murthy officially gave the label of “epidemic” to loneliness. “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an under-appreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. said Murthy. “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.”

How should we address the loneliness epidemic?

US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DCSAUL LOEB/Getty Images

The advisory outlines “six pillars” to “advance a national strategy to advance social connection.”

“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,” said Murthy. Here are the six pillars:

1. Strengthen social infrastructure. The advisory calls for communities to design environments and physical elements that promote connection (such as parks, libraries and playgrounds) and to invest in places that bring people together.

2. Enact pro-connection public policies. The advisory insists that governments play a role in establishing programs like accessible public transportation or paid family leave that can support more connection among a community.

3. Mobilize the health sector. Because loneliness and isolation are risk factors for several major health conditions (including heart disease, dementia and depression), health care providers need to be prepared to treat patients at risk for loneliness.

4. Reform digital environments. The Surgeon General says we must critically re-evaluate our relationship with technology. Policies need to ensure that how we interact digitally does not detract from meaningful and healing connections with others.

5. Deepen our knowledge. This is a call for more robust research on loneliness and its effects on health.

6. Cultivate a culture of connection. This is more intangible, but governments and communities need to understand and influence connections in everyday life.

What are some of the symptoms of loneliness?

Loneliness symptoms include things such as poor sleep, depression and anxiety, as well as issues with your blood pressure. Behaviors such as canceling appointments, not leaving the house or getting dressed in the morning may also signal loneliness. If you believe that loneliness is becoming a problem in your life (or that of a loved one) see a health care provider to discuss your mental health.

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