The song Superstar, which was popularized both by the Carpenters and by Luther Vandross, contains the memorable and melancholic line, “Loneliness is such a sad affair.” While the song specifically concerns a forlorn lover, the fact is that loneliness – due to a variety of causes – has become a health crisis in America.
The physical health consequences of loneliness are staggering. There is a 50% increased risk of dementia for older Americans, who are often at high risk of having a solitary lifestyle. For all Americans, the risk of stroke increases by 32%, and there is a 29% increased risk of heart disease. Most tragically, a lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60%.
Unfortunately, there is more bad news. With regard to mental health, social isolation increases the risk of developing depression among lonely people by more than double the rate for people who rarely or never experience loneliness. Regarding young people, social isolation in childhood increases the risk of depression and anxiety both immediately and over time. In the U.S., more than one in five adults, and more than one in three young adults, lives with a mental illness.
When considering the big picture, there is a strong argument to be made that our society should stop drawing a distinction between physical health and mental health; the scourge of loneliness certainly doesn’t do so. Indeed, challenges to mental health often affect physical health and vice versa. Similarly, if we positively affect one we’re likely to positively affect the other.
Ironically, the holiday season tends to intensify the problem for millions of people. Even as families across the country baste turkeys, decorate Christmas trees, and make travel plans to see loved ones, many of our friends, neighbors, and co-workers become despondent as they mourn the loss of spouses, parents, grandparents, and even children. Smiles and laughter are supplanted by tears and heartbreaking memories. Fortunately, the medical community has begun to take this issue seriously.
In May of this year, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory that officially identified loneliness as a public health crisis. Though the recent pandemic expanded and exacerbated the problem of loneliness in America, roughly half of the population reported measurable loneliness even before COVID. In a report called Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, Dr. Murthy offers specific recommendations regarding how individuals, health systems, nonprofits, and the government can fight this growing problem:
- Strengthen Social Infrastructure: Having the community come together for the specific purpose of connecting people to each other. This can be achieved in a variety of venues, including libraries and parks. Volunteers can design activities that are designed to break down barriers that often separate us.
- Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies: While this crisis cannot be solved by the government alone, policy can play a role in strengthening interpersonal bonds. Such policies might include paid family leave or accessible public transportation, both of which enable stronger community connections.
- Mobilize the Health Sector: The healthcare system is well-equipped to diagnose and treat health challenges that may be brought on or increased by loneliness. Unfortunately, the poor and elderly often face substantial barriers in getting to see a doctor. However, creating the types of public policies that are referenced above can ameliorate this problem.
- Reform Digital Environments: As has often been stated, technology is a blessing and a curse. It is crucial to evaluate both the extent to which we use our myriad digital devices and the manner in which we do so. Human interaction is, and always will be, infinitely more important than being tethered to our phones, etc.
- Deepen Our Knowledge: It is crucial not only for researchers to continually examine the causes, effects, and remedies to loneliness, but also for us to educate ourselves regarding their findings. Knowledge is not only power; it is also health.
- Cultivate a Culture of Connection: While so many of us lead lives of constant motion that often loosens social and even familial bonds, we can choose to be more intentional about connecting with others. Consciously making a few changes here and there could make a world of difference in someone’s life.
This holiday season, we should all consider reaching out to those who we know (or strongly suspect) will be spending an inordinate amount of time alone. A little bit of caring can go a very long way.