Loneliness kills. Not like cancer or a heart attack, but the health implications of being lonely can lead to death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness, isolation, and lack of human connection can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, increased risk of stroke, and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia for older adults. Additionally, lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.
Loneliness impacts mental health, physical health, disabilities and living alone. People with disabilities report their activity and social interactions are limited by their health challenges. Nearly 50 percent of those living alone report a lack of companionship.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a 2023 news release.
“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected,” he added.
As the new year starts, chances are you know someone who is lonely, isolated or lacks human connection. Amid the most advanced ways of communicating in human history, why are people still lonely?
“Socialization and human interaction, it’s as important to us as breathing,” Dr. Erin Smith, who sees patients in Phoenix told The Final Call. “That’s why when babies are left in the nursery when their mother abandons them in the hospital, the hospital has to hire somebody just to hold them or have volunteers to hold and cuddle them. People need to be warmly nurtured from birth. When we are in the womb, we were always with our mother.”
“Then when we are born, we need people. People who need people are the luckiest people, so the song goes. The main part of early education is socialization. Learning to be with people, get along with people, and be people who need people. No man is an island. It’s a part of our nature. It’s a part of our being. We weren’t put on the planet to be isolationists. People need someone to interact with.”
The CDC reported that loneliness and social isolation in childhood increase the risk of depression and anxiety both immediately and well into the future. And with more than one in five adults and more than one in three young adults living with a mental illness in the U.S., addressing loneliness and isolation is critical to fully address the mental health crisis in America.
According to the AARP (American Association of Retired People), isolation is more than being alone. It’s the result of feeling detached physically or psychologically, or being disconnected from support groups of family, friends and community. More than eight million adults age 50 and older are affected by isolation. The health risks of prolonged isolation are equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Phone a friend
Something as simple as a phone call, text or FaceTime can change the life of a lonely person. The AARP has a dedicated site www.connect2affect.org to help seniors confront loneliness.
“Research consistently shows having social connections can help you experience fewer mental and physical health issues as you grow older. Not only does talking with others keep your brain sharp, relationships can give you a sense of belonging that makes a lasting impact on the quality of your life,” the site says. Their eight steps to building social connections include meeting new people, rekindling old relationships and learning to bounce back from disappointments.
Surgeon General Murthy offers six foundational pillars to establish a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. They include:
- Strengthen Social Infrastructure: Connections are influenced by individual interactions, as well as the physical elements of a community (parks, libraries, playgrounds) and the programs and policies in place.
- Mobilize the Health Sector: Loneliness and isolation are risk factors for several major health conditions (including heart disease, dementia, depression) as well as for premature death. Healthcare providers can assess patients for risk of loneliness and intervene.
- Reform Digital Environments: Critically evaluate relationships with technology. Make sure how we interact digitally does not detract from meaningful and healing connections with others.
- Cultivate a Culture of Connection: How we interact with each other significantly influences the relationships we have in our lives. Work on developing and maintaining a culture of connection.
“We can change the life of a lonely or isolated person with simple connections like a phone call, or FaceTime. Everyone knows someone who could benefit from us reaching out and touching their lives. Make a point of spending five to 10 minutes each day contacting someone in need. Their lives may depend on it,” Dr. Smith said.