‘Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation’ Harming Our Health, Says Surgeon General

Wim De Gent
By Wim De Gent
May 2, 2023Health
‘Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation’ Harming Our Health, Says Surgeon General
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy speaks during a press briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House on July 15, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. Surgeon General says widespread loneliness in the United States poses health risks as deadly as smoking a dozen cigarettes daily, costing the health industry billions of dollars annually, the U.S. surgeon general said Tuesday in declaring the latest public health epidemic.

About half of U.S. adults say they’ve experienced loneliness, Dr. Vivek Murthy said in an 81-page report from his office.

“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing,” Murthy said.

“Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”

Combating loneliness has long been a priority on Dr. Murthy’s agenda, who even during his previous tenure as Surgeon General focused on the matter.

His latest report shows that the increase in feelings of loneliness in recent decades coincides with diminished engagement of American citizens with worship houses, community organizations, and even their own family members, research showed.

Another contributing factor is the doubling of single households over the last 60 years.

The COVID-19 lockdowns and other measures exacerbated the situation gravely, as schools and workplaces were closed, forcing millions of Americans to stay at home in isolation, away from neighbors, colleagues, relatives, and friends.

In addition, fear of the pandemic drove people to cull their social contacts even more.

As a result, Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends in 2020, 60 minutes less than the daily average from two decades earlier, the report showed.

Those most affected by loneliness during the pandemic were young people between 15 and 24. This age group reported a 70% drop in time spent with friends during the same period.

Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30 percent, with the report revealing that those with poor social relationships also had a greater risk of stroke and heart disease, confirming what an earlier study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine had reported.

Isolation further increases the odds of experiencing depression, anxiety, and dementia, the report showed.

The surgeon general is calling on workplaces, schools, technology companies, community organizations, parents, and other people to implement changes that will boost connectedness among Americans.

He advises people to join community groups and put down their phones when they’re visiting friends; employers to think carefully about remote work policies; and health organizations to provide training for doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness.

Murthy saw social media as a major driving force behind the increase in loneliness. He suggested that technology companies roll out protections for children, focused specifically on their social media behavior.

“There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction,” Dr. Murthy asserted. “As we shifted to use technology more and more for our communication, we lost out on a lot of that in-person interaction. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships as opposed to weaken them?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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