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The Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It

Loneliness is affecting the health of Americans of all ages.

Key points

  • Research shows Americans are feeling more lonely than ever before.
  • Loneliness leads to both mental and physical health problems.
  • Recognizing the pitfalls of loneliness and creating social support networks are two steps that may help alleviate the problem.
natus111/Adobe Stock
Source: natus111/Adobe Stock

The evidence shows Americans are becoming lonelier, leading to mental and physical health problems for people of all ages.

Preliminary results of a Harvard University study conducted in October 2020 found that 36 percent of Americans reported feeling seriously lonely. Among specific groups of people, that number was even higher, with 61 percent of participants ages 18-25 and 51 percent of mothers with young children reported feeling “frequently” or “almost always” lonely. In addition, there is ample evidence that older adults have experienced an increase in loneliness since the start of the pandemic.

Loneliness has broader implications for our mental and physical health. It's not difficult to understand how loneliness leads to depression, a growing problem in the U.S. Among older adults, loneliness increases the risk of developing dementia, slows down their walking speeds, interferes with their ability to care for themselves, and increases their risk of heart disease and stroke. Loneliness is even associated with dying earlier. Among adolescents and young adults, loneliness increases the likelihood of headaches, stomach aches, sleep disturbances, and compulsive internet use.

Neuroscientists have found feeling lonely changes the structure and function of our brains in areas associated with cognition, stress response, and emotions. Brain imaging studies have also found loneliness is related to the biological markers for Alzheimer’s disease.

The recent Harvard report offers a deep dive into who suffers the most from loneliness, and the best ways to alleviate this problem. They found, for example, that young adults ages 18-25, have been especially vulnerable to loneliness during the COVID-19 pandemic. About half reported going weeks without having anyone ask how they were doing in a way that made them feel the person “genuinely cared about their well being.

They also found people who feel lonely tend to be more critical of themselves and others and are more likely to expect social rejection.

The report advocates for two main solutions. The first involves educating people about how loneliness changes the perceptions of self and others, and teaching techniques to reframe these negative perceptions. This includes informing people about how widespread loneliness is to reduce feelings of shame and encouraging lonely people to reach out to others, even though they might feel prone to rejection.

Second, the report also advocates for a broader public response that raises awareness about the importance of maintaining and creating social ties. It suggests a two-pronged approach: connecting people to others through digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google, and local organizations such as schools, churches, YMCAs, and libraries.

The report recommends embedding social connections into our society. Examples of this include making sure doctors ask about loneliness at annual check-ups and connect lonely patients with community resources; encouraging schools help to connect parents with one another and making sure every child has a trusting relationship with a school adult; colleges creating communities in which students feel they belong; senior centers finding ways to connect young people with the elderly; and workplaces finding ways to check in with employees and create social opportunities for colleagues.

The take-home message: Loneliness is pervasive in modern society and leads to a wide range of health problems. One solution is to encourage lonely people to recognize the negative perceptions through patterns associated with loneliness and to reach out to others. Encouraging institutions and community organizations to create social connections is another way to address loneliness on a broader scale.