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May 02, 2023

Loneliness epidemic affects half of American adults, but there are many ways to get connected

Social isolation can increase risk of premature death as much as daily cigarette smoking, a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General says

Adult Health Loneliness
Loneliness Surgeon General Mart Production/

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued an advisory Tuesday on the public health impact of loneliness, sharing sobering statistics on its mental, phsyical and societal dangers.

About half of U.S. adults say they struggle with feelings of loneliness and social disconnection, a problem that the U.S. Surgeon General warned Tuesday poses serious risks to well-being and life expectancy.

The advisory from Dr. Vivek Murthy is the first of its kind to address loneliness, which he called "far more than just a bad feeling" that people experience.

"Being socially disconnected, which can range from feeling alone to being isolated, is bad both for individual and societal health," Murthy said.

An 81-page report accompanying the federal advisory details how loneliness can increase risks of heart disease, stroke, dementia, depression, anxiety and premature death. One study notes that the quality of our social relationships — or lack thereof — can have as much an influence on the risk of death as other known mortality risks like smoking and drinking alcohol. The influence of relationships on mortality is even greater than physical inactivity and obesity, according to the study. 

The report highlights other surprising statistics that challenge common misconceptions about loneliness, including the belief that feelings of disconnection primarily affect older adults. A 2021 poll of nearly 2,500 Americans found that 79% of adults ages 18-24 reported feeling lonely, compared to 41% of seniors ages 66 and older.

The same poll found that people with lower incomes were more likely to be lonely than those with higher incomes, and Black and Hispanic people reported more loneliness than the total population's rate of 58%. Financial insecurity can make a significant difference. The poll found that 63% of adults earning $50,000 or less are considered lonely, which is 10 percentage points higher than those who earn more than that.

"It's a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing," Murthy told The Associated Press. "Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that's not right."

A website supporting Murthy's push for awareness includes links to a wide range of studies that illustrate the damaging effects of loneliness, along with other resources for people to learn about its associations with mental and physical health.

Why are we getting lonelier in the U.S.?

The Surgeon General's report offers several reasons why loneliness is on the rise, particularly among young people.

One of the primary culprits is social media, which often stands as a replacement for face-to-face contact and phone calls. A series of studies cited in the report note that 1 in 3 U.S. adults say they are online "almost constantly," and the percentage of teens ages 13-17 who fit that description has doubled since 2015.

Although there are social benefits that digital media platforms offer, they also tend to monopolize attention, diminish the quality of interactions and even reduce self-esteem.

The COVID-19 pandemic also has played an important role in driving loneliness in the U.S.. The report cites a national poll that found that about one year into the pandemic, 1 in 4 people said they felt less close to family members compared to the pre-pandemic period. Although the pandemic sometimes emphasized acts of service that brought people together, the lasting effects of isolation during that period are apparent in society's growing reliance on technology for remote socializing and work.

In 2020, Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends, a reflection of the public health guidance that advised social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Two decades earlier, Americans spent about 60 minutes daily with friends.

The percentage of Americans living alone also has increased over the last several decades. In 1960, single-person households accounted for only 13% of all U.S. households. In 2022, that had increased to 29%.

On a societal level, more widespread loneliness also corresponds to changes in how communities form and the causes that unite them. The report warns that as a fundamental need, social connection can also drive people to unhealthy and dangerous places of acceptance, such as gangs and extremist groups. Greater numbers of lonely people can lead to such groups manipulating those who are in search of community, creating anti-social pockets that define themselves in opposition to others.

How to get more socially connected

Murthy is the author of the 2020 book, "Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World," which includes a number of suggestions for combatting loneliness.

In Tuesday's report, the surgeon general called the keys to human connection "simple, but extraordinarily powerful" in their capacities to reduce feelings of loneliness.

One of Murthy's most important recommendations is to put aside devices when interacting with people in person in order to give them full attention. This increases feelings of being heard and understood, while reinforcing important social cues like eye contact and balanced conversation.

Another tip is to make the small, extra efforts to contact or meet with friends and family each day, in one way or another. Speaking with people authentically about what's new in life — whether serious or trivial — builds on shared knowledge about each other that can provide comfort in times of doubt, fear and insecurity.

Acts of service, such as volunteering for organizations, banding together with neighbors and helping out friends in need, also increase feelings of meaningful connection and belonging.

And when people call? Don't let it go to voicemail, if it can be helped. Even a brief interaction with a friend or a family member can help keep communication feeling regular and reduce the tendency to procrastinate, which may create a sense that relationships are being ignored.

"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," Murthy said in the report.

Murthy is calling on social institutions like schools, workplaces, households and community groups to evaluate steps that can be taken to reduce loneliness in the U.S.

"If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being," Murthy said. "And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners — angry, sick and alone."

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