Loneliness in the United States is a public health epidemic that poses serious health risks, says U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy. In an 81-page report, he stated that widespread loneliness is as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily, costing the health industry billions of dollars annually.
Around half of U.S. adults have reported experiencing loneliness. “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 told The Associated Press. “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.”
Why It’s Worse Now
The problem of loneliness has become worse in recent decades, says Murthy, as Americans have become less engaged with community organizations, worship houses, and family members. The number of single households has doubled in the past 60 years. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a steep rise in loneliness, as millions of Americans have been forced to isolate themselves away from friends and family.
The report states that people pulled away from friend groups during the pandemic and spent less time with those friends. In 2020, Americans spent just 20 minutes a day in person with friends, down from 60 minutes daily two decades earlier.
The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, ages 15 to 24, especially hard. The age group reported a 70 percent 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. Isolation also elevates a person’s likelihood for experiencing depression, anxiety, and dementia.
A Call for Connectedness
The surgeon general is calling on workplaces, schools, technology companies, community organizations, parents, and other individuals to make changes that will boost connectedness. Joining community groups, cutting screen time and modifying remote work policies were among the ways to make improvements. Health systems are also urged to provide training for doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness. The report suggests that technology companies should also introduce protections for children, particularly regarding social media use.
“There’s really no substitute for in-person interaction,” Murthy said. “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?”