You can’t ignore the growing epidemic of loneliness. It has become an “urgent health threat,” as the World Health Organization calls it. That’s why, according to a press release from the World Health Organization, the World Health Organization has just established the Commission on Social Connectedness, which aims to “address loneliness as an urgent health threat, make promoting social connectedness a priority, and accelerate efforts to improve social connectedness in all income countries Scaling up solutions.”
Over the next three years, the committee aims to ensure that the loneliness epidemic “is recognized and resourced as a global public health priority”. The Commission will propose a global agenda on social connectedness, working with high-level commissioners to make the case for action, mobilize support to scale up solutions that work and measure progress. “
How big a threat is loneliness to health? Well, according to a report titled “Our Loneliness and Isolation Epidemic” released in May by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MPH, the situation is dire. The report says the health effects of loneliness can be as serious as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. If you haven’t figured it out yet, no doctor is going to tell you, “Go on, smoke 15 cigarettes a day. You’ll be fine.”
The equivalence of 15 cigarettes stems from the observation that experiencing long-term loneliness increases the risk of a range of different chronic diseases. For example, the report cites studies that found poor or insufficient social connections were associated with a 29% increased risk of heart disease and a 32% increased risk of stroke, as well as anxiety, depression, dementia, respiratory illness and viral infections. These findings once again emphasize the importance of the mind-body connection. Not only is your mind expected to be physically connected to the rest of your body, but what happens in your mind doesn’t always stay in your mind. It can greatly affect the functioning of your entire body. In other words, mental and emotional health can significantly impact physical health in very, very complex ways.
Note that the title of the U.S. Surgeon General’s report is “Our Epidemic” rather than “Their Epidemic” because the report focuses on what is happening in the United States, even as loneliness has become a global problem. The report noted that social isolation among older adults is associated with an estimated $6.7 billion in additional Medicare spending each year, and that employers lose an estimated $154 billion when employees lose their jobs due to loneliness. If you feel alone, you are not alone. The report cites research that found only 39% of U.S. adults feel connected to others, and about half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness.
Over the past few decades, things have gotten worse, too. The report mentioned that polls show that the proportion of Americans who believe they can reliably trust other Americans fell from about 45% in 1972 to about 30% in 2016. People also spend more and more time alone, increasing from 285 minutes per day or 142.5 hours per month in 2003 to 309 minutes per day or 154.5 hours per month.
No matter how many followers you have on X, TikTok, or Instagram, no matter how many times others may say “so cute,” “you don’t look old,” or “beautiful” when you post a photo on Facebook, Many indicators suggest that actual social relationships with friends and other people have been steadily deteriorating over the years. From 2003 to 2020, the average time spent face-to-face with friends decreased by 20 hours per month, from 30 hours per month to 10 hours per month. And, guess what, this decline is especially pronounced among 15- to 24-year-olds, which certainly doesn’t bode well for the future.
Even more telling is the decline in the average number of close friendships people maintain. The share of Americans who say they have fewer than four close friends has increased from 27% in 1990 to 49% in 2021. When you don’t have a trusted confidant to share your feelings and worries with, guess where those feelings and worries go?
Again, the United States is not the only country in the world caught in a loneliness epidemic.For example, I covered Forbes How to create a Minister for Loneliness in the UK in 2018.If you google, “why [enter name of country people here] Too Lonely” you will receive many articles and websites describing loneliness in different countries. An example of such an article is “Why Swedes Are So Lonely? ”, written by John David Ritz in 2015 (or possibly keyboarded) vice. You will also find a webpage maintained by the Australian Government” which reads: “Loneliness among Australians was already a concern before the Covid-19 pandemic, with it being described as an ‘epidemic’ , and one of Australia’s most pressing public health concerns. “
Murthy will co-chair the 11-member committee along with African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba. The committee included Karen DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MS, and Haben Girma, JD, from Japan, Ralph Regenvanu from Vanuatu, Khalid Ait Taleb, MD, from Morocco, and Jakob Forssmed from Sweden. Hina Jilani, MD, Cleopa Mailu, MD, from Pakistan, Ximena Aguilera Sanhueza, MD, MPH, from Kenya, and Ximena Aguilera Sanhueza, MD, MPH, from Chile.
The committee does face a difficult task. The loneliness epidemic is a complex systemic problem that arises from years of neglect. Decades of society failing to adequately address the many different factors and changes in and around people that contribute to the deterioration of social relationships means there will not be a simple, quick solution. The committee, along with many policymakers around the world, must connect the dots between what is happening in order to create real social connections between people around the world.
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