The High Cost of Loneliness

The High Cost of Loneliness

The mental, physical, and economic costs of loneliness can be reduced with self-help or intervention.

What is loneliness, and why does it matter?

Some describe loneliness as a feeling of distress caused by a lack of meaningful, close relationships. In other words, loneliness can be defined as a lack of emotional connectedness. With this definition, it is important to acknowledge that one can be lonely in a crowd.

For those who suffer from loneliness, there is often deep emotional pain and a belief that nobody understands, is aware that you are suffering, or even cares. In other words, these individuals “feel invisible.”

The above experiences and beliefs are not without consequences for those who suffer from loneliness and our population at large. Consider the following:

  • When children and teens are lonely in school, they become more isolated from their peers, which impedes learning and progress.
  • Adult employees who feel lonely and isolated from co-workers in the workplace are shown to be less productive.
  • Senior adults grieving the loss of a spouse or other family member often withdraw from the very social connections they critically need. Their loneliness persists, and overall health eventually begins to decline.

What does loneliness have to do with public health?

Loneliness is a growing public health problem. We know this because research has shown that loneliness is detrimental to an individual's physical and mental health.

Studies indicate that chronic loneliness increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, and premature death.
For example:

  • Between 25% and 45% of American adults report being chronically lonely.
  • Loneliness has the same impact on the human body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Depression, suicide, and addiction in the U.S., all associated with chronic loneliness, cost the American economy $960 billion annually. (These costs are related to Medicare, Medicaid, and third-party insurance, which include medical cost inflation, higher insurance premiums, increased patient co-pays, etc.)

Reducing the high cost of this problem begins with awareness.

Loneliness will never be cured or prevented by a vaccine or congressional action. Instead, reducing loneliness begins at the local level and requires the awareness and involvement of individuals, families, and communities.

Tips for helping yourself and others overcome loneliness.

So what can you do to overcome loneliness or help someone else? There is not enough data to identify the most effective “loneliness interventions,” but the following principles may help guide your efforts to help yourself or someone else.

Connect meaningfully with family and friends.
Social media may be helpful over long distances, but in-person presence will always result in the most meaningful connections. Strive to communicate in a way that works best for you, whether by phone, video chat, or talking with others in your neighborhood, at church, or the grocery store.

Be thankful.
People struggling with loneliness often become preoccupied with themselves and their difficulties. Focus on your appreciation of friends, family, and even the kindness of strangers. Help others do the same.

Focus on what you can change.
Focusing on a specific, undesirable situation can drive and prolong loneliness. Instead, focus your attention on positive thoughts and activities within your control. Set goals and work at them. Encourage and engage others to join you in this effort.

Enjoy being busy.
Complete a chore, spend time writing, take on a household project (large or small), find a new hobby, pursue an interest, or dive into a new activity. Ask someone else who may be lonely to join you.

Remove negativity.
Surround yourself with people and activities that bring you joy. Consider taking a break from the news, or at least limiting the time you spend on it. Become a more positive influence in your own life and the lives of others.

How you treat others makes a difference.
Be kind, understanding, and patient. Work on treating yourself and others with dignity, compassion, and respect. Creating pleasurable and meaningful interactions with others can help you and those around you every day.

Develop a routine that provides balance and familiarity.
Create a daily plan that includes physical activity, time for connecting with others, a project or hobby, or some other relaxing pastime.

Consult a professional.
If you or someone you know is struggling with loneliness and the feeling persists, despite efforts to improve, seek the guidance of a professional. Make an appointment to discuss the situation with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional.

Reducing the high cost of loneliness begins with awareness

People are naturally social beings, and it is our nature to want and need the presence of others. A prolonged period of loneliness, without self-help or interventions, can result in devastating physical and mental health outcomes.

Public awareness of our shared susceptibility to loneliness has made it easier for many people to discuss this subject. If loneliness is the feeling of being invisible, discussing it may be the first step to “being seen” and effectively addressing the issue.

Indeed, if we become more effective in preventing and treating loneliness, we will reduce its physical, mental, and economic costs.

Ultimately, every person in our society will benefit.

Adult Health Topics