Loneliness has personal, social, and economic implications for individuals and communities.
What is loneliness and isolation?
According to the recently released 2023 Surgeon General's Advisory, loneliness is a widespread issue affecting people of all ages and backgrounds. While it can be challenging to admit feeling lonely, it is essential to recognize that loneliness is a typical human experience.
Loneliness and isolation are separate but related concepts. Isolation is a lack of social connections. Loneliness is the emotional experience of feeling alone, even when surrounded by others.
Do we have a loneliness epidemic among Americans?
According to the Advisory, around 20% of adults in the United States reported feeling lonely or socially isolated.
Reported rates of loneliness have increased across the last few decades, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Sadly, younger individuals currently report higher rates of loneliness than older generations.
Older adults, people with disabilities, and geographically isolated people are particularly vulnerable to loneliness. Social and economic factors such as poverty, unemployment, and discrimination also increase the risk of loneliness and isolation.
What are the physical health risks associated with loneliness?
Loneliness and social isolation can increase the risk of chronic health conditions, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- A weakened immune system
- Cognitive decline
- Poor sleep quality
What are the mental health risks associated with loneliness?
Prolonged loneliness and social isolation can also impact our mental health and contribute to conditions such as:
- Depression and anxiety
- Substance abuse
- Suicidal thoughts
- Low self-esteem
- Cognitive decline
How does loneliness impact our economic well-being?
The Advisory indicates that higher rates of loneliness affect our economy in various ways. Examples include:
- Reduced productivity
Loneliness can reduce workplace productivity, negatively affecting the business’s profitability and the community’s economic development.
- Increased healthcare costs
Loneliness and social isolation have been linked to increased healthcare costs, as socially isolated people may be more likely to develop chronic health conditions that require expensive medical treatments.
- Increased burden on social services
Without the support of family and friends, socially isolated individuals may be more dependent on the support provided through programs such as food and housing assistance. Over time, these systems may become unable to meet the increased needs of the population they serve.
What factors have contributed to the decline in our social connections?
Individuals typically lose social connections due to geographic distance, diminished social networks, or strained relationships. As this occurs, they may feel increasingly isolated and lonely. For some, the absence of social interactions can eventually lead to emotional distress.
The Advisory highlights two primary factors that contribute to declining social connections:
Technology. While social media can provide opportunities for social connection, it can also create barriers to in-person interactions. Overusing social media can lead to a decreased sense of belonging and deepen feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Membership. The steady decline in the number of people participating in churches and community organizations has also contributed to loneliness and social isolation for many people. Moreover, declining involvement in these organizations and events has led to their disappearance in many areas.
How can we address loneliness as a public health concern?
Unquestionably, the loneliness epidemic has negatively impacted many Americans' physical and mental health. The resulting social and economic impact on our communities and institutions cannot be ignored.
The Advisory calls for individual, community, and policy-level interventions to reduce the adverse effects of loneliness. Following are some ideas that everyone can implement:
- Build social connections by regularly contacting friends and family members, participating in community events, and joining clubs or groups.
- Support community institutions such as churches, libraries, and community centers that provide services and opportunities for social interaction and community engagement.
- Address social and economic barriers resulting from poverty, unemployment, and discrimination at a personal and community level, particularly for vulnerable populations.
- Encourage the use of technology to support in-person social interactions, particularly for older adults and those with mobility challenges.
By prioritizing social connections and community building, we can help prevent loneliness, improve health outcomes, and create more connected and supportive communities for all of us.