The result is a public health crisis on the scale of the opioid epidemic or obesity, Dr Murthy said. In a study 2018 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans said they always or often felt lonely or socially isolated.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these feelings. In a recent city-wide survey by the New York City Health Department, 57% of people said they felt lonely some or most of the time, and two-thirds said they had felt socially isolated in the past month.
“Loneliness,” Dr. Murthy said, “has real consequences for our health and well-being.”
Being alone, like other forms of stress, increases the risk of emotional disorders like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Less obviously, it also puts people at increased risk for seemingly unrelated physical illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, dementia, and premature death. In laboratory experimentslonely people who were exposed to a cold virus were more likely to develop symptoms than people who were not alone.
An often quoted meta-analysis by Julianne Holt-Lunstad of Brigham Young University compared the risk effects of loneliness, isolation, and weak social networks to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“The general public recognizes how much loneliness can influence our levels of distress, our emotional or mental health,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said. “But we probably don’t recognize the strong evidence of the effects on our physical health.”
We also do not recognize the economic cost.
Still, the culture has moved slowly to combat the epidemic, Dr. Murthy said, treating loneliness as an unpleasant feeling rather than a public health crisis. “There are more adults struggling with loneliness than with diabetes,” he said. “Yet think of the gap in the attention we give to these two conditions.”