- Loneliness and social isolation were apparent long before the pandemic.
- Loneliness can increase one's risk for dementia, autoimmune disorders, premature death, and suicide.
- Fortunately, there are multiple ways to combat loneliness.
“We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s.” — U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, 2017
The Health Consequences of Loneliness
This week, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy released a report indicating that approximately half of U.S. residents experience loneliness daily. However, this is not a new phenomenon. He based his results on data that was collected before the onset of the COVID pandemic. The quote above the title of this article is from 2017. Importantly, he cites evidence that loneliness can increase the risk of premature death by 26 percent. As a psychiatrist, I know that lonely people suffer from more anxiety and depressive symptoms, describe themselves as less satisfied, and are more pessimistic about life and their future.
Loneliness is associated with an increased risk of dementia, substance abuse, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk for suicide. According to Dr. Murthy’s 2023 report, insufficient social connection has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
What Is Meant by Loneliness?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, loneliness is feeling alone or disconnected from others. It is feeling like you do not have meaningful or close relationships or a sense of belonging. It reflects the difference between a person’s actual and desired level of connection. This means that even a person with a lot of friends can feel lonely. Research suggests that loneliness impacts some groups more than others, including adults in lower socioeconomic groups, young adults, adults living alone, people with chronic illness or disabilities, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.
According to the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, humans are a social species but are not unique in this way. Something analogous to social behavior can even be observed in organisms lacking a nervous system—Science published an article that described a form of social recognition in bacteria. Although we may share some aspects of our social behavior with more primitive species, human social behavior is more complex but no less important for our health and survival. When these aspects of social behavior are limited or disrupted, it is a risk factor for social isolation and loneliness.
A study published in PLOS Medicine in 2010 reported that loneliness is as lethal to our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Additionally, people with strong social bonds are 50 percent less likely to die over a given period than those with fewer social connections.
In 2015, researchers at UCLA discovered that social isolation triggers cellular changes that result in chronic inflammation, predisposing lonely people to serious physical conditions like heart disease, stroke, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
There Was a Problem Before the Pandemic
An article published in Forbes magazine in 2019 cited the results from a survey by the Economist and The Kaiser Family Foundation, which indicated 22 percent of adults in the U.S. and 23 percent of adults in the United Kingdom reported they “always or often feel lonely, lacked companionship, or felt left out or isolated.”
An online poll conducted by YouGov in 2020 prior to the pandemic posed the question: “Thinking of the past year, how often have you felt lonely?” The results indicated that almost 80 percent of the respondents, including millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers, reported that they felt lonely “often.” Even a larger amount of the same group responded they felt lonely “sometimes.” What has contributed to this phenomenon?
- The upward trend of living alone: Until the 1960s, single-person households were exceedingly rare. However, over the past 50 years, this statistic has risen substantially. Compared with 1960, when single-person households represented only 13 percent of households overall, in 2022, that number increased to 29 percent.
- A decline in social engagement: Robert Putnam, a Harvard Professor of International Affairs, wrote a groundbreaking book entitled Bowling Alone. In this volume, he presents decades of research supporting the fact that engagement in social interaction has declined in the past 50 years. This includes participation in political affairs (decline in number of individuals voting), religious organizations, and membership in civic and fraternal organizations. The title of his book refers to the decline in bowling leagues, which used to be a popular outlet for social interaction. All these declines have contributed to a greater degree of social isolation—a risk factor for loneliness.
- The rise of the internet and technology in general: While the internet was literally a lifesaver during the pandemic, allowing individuals (including myself) to stay connected to friends and loved ones, it can also be a risk factor for loneliness. A 2017 study of young adults ages 19-32 published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported that individuals with higher social media usage are more than three times as likely to feel socially isolated compared with those who use social media less frequently. Social media especially affects females because their social life and status often (unfortunately) revolve around intimacy and inclusion. Females are more likely than males to experience the “missing out” effect and relational aggression, which is common on social media.
- The post-pandemic rise in hybrid or work-from-home options for employees: An article published in July 2022 by TNW media company reported the results of work they conducted along with researchers at Boston University. They surveyed a thousand remote workers from 55 countries and found more than half of their respondents experienced recurring loneliness “most or all of the time.” In addition, more than half of the respondents reported that it was “somewhat or very important” to have a social connection during the workday. Interestingly, most lonely employees think about quitting their jobs more than the least lonely employees. So, in addition to the significant amount of health risks that result from loneliness, it costs employers potentially billions of dollars per year in lost work.
What Can Be Done About This?
The National Institute on Aging recommends the following ideas to combat loneliness:
- Find an activity that you enjoy or learn something new. This is a great way to meet people with similar interests.
- Exercise. Exercise decreases stress, boosts your mood, and enhances your energy. Group exercise is also a good way to meet new friends and form relationships.
- Volunteer. You will feel better by helping others, and it is a great way to increase social interactions.
- Consider adopting a pet: Animals can be a source of comfort and have been shown to have a positive effect on lowering blood pressure and decreasing stress.
Primack BA, Shensa A, Sidani JE, Whaite EO, Lin LY, Rosen D, Colditz JB, Radovic A, Miller E. Social Media Use and Perceived Social Isolation Among Young Adults in the U.S. Am J Prev Med. 2017 Jul;53 (1):1-8.
Robert D. Putnam“Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" Journal of Democracy, January 1995, pp. 65-78.
Manfred E. Beutel, Eva M. Klein, Elmar Brähler, Iris Reiner, Claus Jünger, Matthias Michal, Jörg Wiltink, Philipp S. Wild, Thomas Münzel, Karl J. Lackner, and Ana N. Tibubos. Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry (2017) 17:97.
Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community 2023.