April 16, 2024
Loneliness is an ‘epidemic’ that costs billions and leads to bad health outcomes and even death

Loneliness is an ‘epidemic’ that costs billions and leads to bad health outcomes and even death

Loneliness is more than a bad feeling. It’s as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death, according to an advisory by the U.S. Surgeon General.

The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is greater than that of obesity and physical inactivity, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in an 81-page report called “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

Social isolation among older adults alone accounts for about $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending a year, largely due to increased hospital and nursing facility spending, the report said. 

Read: Depression, isolation, loss of purpose: Could retirement be bad for your mental health?

Loneliness and isolation also are connected with lower academic achievement and worse performance at work. In the U.S., stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually, according to the report.

“Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” the report said. Still, no federal funding or programming will be provided to combat the issue.

Essentially, social connection is a significant predictor of longevity and better physical, cognitive, and mental health, while social isolation and loneliness are significant predictors of premature death and poor health, the report said.

Read: Americans are lonelier than ever—and that’s bad for your health

The Surgeon General’s advisory is intended as a public statement that calls the people’s attention to an urgent public health issue and provides recommendations for how it should be addressed. Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action, the report said.

“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,” the report said. “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.”

Americans have become less connected to houses of worship, community organizations and their own families and have reported an increase in feelings of loneliness. The number of single households has also doubled over the last 60 years.

About half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, with some of the highest rates among young adults. People cut their circles of friends during the Covid-19 pandemic and reduced time spent with those friends, according to the report. 

Read: ‘When we retire, we lose a lot.’ How to avoid retirement shock.

Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends in 2020, down from 60 minutes daily nearly two decades earlier. Among young people, ages 15 to 24, time spent in-person with friends has reduced by nearly 70% over almost two decades, from roughly 150 minutes per day in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020, the report said. 

Technology has made loneliness worse. People who used social media for two hours or more daily were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who used such technology for less than 30 minutes a day, according to the report.

Murthy called on technology companies, employers, community-based organizations, parents and individuals to tackle the problem. 

“We are called to build a movement to mend the social fabric of our nation. It will take all of us…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 said. 


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