There is a growing epidemic the country needs to worry about, and it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take action, the U.S. surgeon general says.
Loneliness and isolation are on the rise in the U.S., and it’s quickly turning into a crisis — with roughly half of adults saying they’ve recently experienced loneliness, according to Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy’s 2023 advisory.
“When I first took office as Surgeon General in 2014, I didn’t view loneliness as a public health concern,” he said in his advisory.
It wasn’t until he traveled across the country to hear Americans share their stories of feeling “isolated, invisible, and insignificant” that he realized “social disconnection was far more common than” he “had realized.”
The loneliness ‘crisis’
Though the COVID-19 pandemic brought out feelings of isolation and loneliness in many, they were already on the rise.
The two make up this national issue of disconnectedness, and though they are related, they do not mean quite the same thing. Social isolation is defined by having few relationships and lack of social interaction, whereas loneliness is an “internal state.”
A 2022 study cited by the advisory showed that only 39% of Americans felt like they were connected to others emotionally. The study showed that with this increase in lack of social connection to others, there was also an increase in loneliness.
The two factors are shown to be more “widespread than many of the other major health issues of our day, including smoking, diabetes, and obesity,” the advisory says.
An increase in technology use, lack of community involvement and decline in personal participation in social interaction can partially be behind the rise in loneliness throughout the country.
Why social connection matters
It’s simple. People who feel connected to others seem to live longer. Recent data spanning 148 studies has shown that individuals with a higher level of social connection have increased their “odds of survival by 50%.”
Social connection influences health through three main pathways: biology, psychology and behavior.
The biology as in hormones, genes and inflammation; psychological as in having purpose and hopefulness; and behaviors like exercise, sleep and nutrition.
So how can adequate social interaction help a person with these three health factors?
Social connection affects the biological pathway by showing up early in life and “contributing to risk and protection from disease” along the way.
The psychological pathway is affected by social relationships and by giving a person motivation in their life.
Behavior can be affected directly through social influence by loved ones’ words of encouragement or following by example, like being more physically active if your friends work out.
Lack of social connection, on the other hand, is a risk factor for deaths caused by disease, the advisory says. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, depression, infectious disease, anxiety and reduced cognitive function are all possible results.
A weakened immune system caused by less social interaction may increase a person’s chance of developing an infectious disease. A study done during the COVID-19 pandemic showed “a lack of social connection with neighbors and resultant loneliness was associated with weaker antibody responses to the vaccine.” Ways to improve social connection
The advisory suggests designing a communal environment that helps build social connection through programs and institutes that bring people together.
From a government perspective, policies should be put in place to “minimize harm from disconnection,” Murthy says. Additionally, he says health care providers should be thoroughly trained on the topic and increase tracking of disconnection in communities.
The surgeon general also advises that because digital environments may be a cause of loneliness and lack of social connection, companies need to provide more data transparency so officials can more broadly understand how technology affects disconnection. He also says those companies need to increase safety standards to protect users.
For the nation to combat this epidemic, there needs to be a sense of public awareness and more research funding on the topic, Murthy says. He suggests gathering researchers, health professionals and policymakers to make a national agenda to address the issue.
Overall, he says the most important way to cultivate is something people can do in their everyday lives. He says individuals need a new sense of social connection and to build “a culture of connection” through acts of service, being kind, respecting one another, and having these conversations in schools and workplaces.
The surgeon general urges the public to act now because “our future depends on what we do today.”
“Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone,” he said. “Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful.”
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