Loneliness carries risks as deadly as smoking, says US surgeon general
The statement aims to raise awareness of loneliness but does not include federal funding to combat it.
washington • Widespread loneliness in the US poses health risks as deadly as smoking a dozen cigarettes a day and costing the healthcare industry billions of dollars a year, the US surgeon general said Tuesday while declaring the latest public health epidemic.
About half of American adults say they have experienced loneliness, said Dr. Vivek Murthy in an 81-page report from his office.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling our body sends us when we’re missing something we need to survive,” Murthy said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Millions of people in America are fighting in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory, to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing.”
The statement is intended to raise awareness of loneliness, but will not release federal funds or programs dedicated to combating the problem.
Research shows that Americans who have become less engaged with church services, community organizations, and even their own family members in recent decades report an ever-increasing sense of loneliness. The number of single households has also doubled in the last 60 years.
But the crisis deepened as COVID-19 spread, prompting schools and workplaces to close their doors and sending millions of Americans into isolation at home, away from relatives or friends.
People have sorted out their friend groups during the coronavirus pandemic and reduced the time they spent with those friends, the surgeon general’s report said. Americans spent about 20 minutes a day face-to-face with friends in 2020, up from 60 minutes a day almost two decades ago.
The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people between the ages of 15 and 24 particularly hard. The age group reported a 70% decrease in time spent with friends over the same period.
Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by almost 30%, with the report showing that people with poor social connections also had a higher risk of stroke and heart disease. According to the study, isolation also increases a person’s likelihood of suffering from depression, anxiety and dementia. Murthy did not provide data illustrating how many people die directly from loneliness or isolation.
The surgeon general is calling on workplaces, schools, tech companies, community organizations, parents and others to make changes that make the country more connected. He advises people to join community groups and turn off their phones when meeting friends; Employers should think carefully about their remote work policies; and health systems to train doctors to recognize the health risks of loneliness.
Technology has quickly exacerbated the loneliness problem, with a study cited in the report finding that people who used social media for two hours or more a day were more than twice as likely to say they felt socially isolated as those who used such apps less than 30 years used minutes a day.
Murthy said social media in particular is driving increases in loneliness. His report suggests that tech companies are putting in place safeguards for children, particularly when it comes to their behavior on social media.
“There really is no substitute for face-to-face interaction,” Murthy said. “As we transitioned to using technology more to communicate, we lost a lot of those face-to-face interactions. How do we design technology that strengthens our relationships instead of weakening them?”