In recent decades, Americans have become less involved with houses of worship, community organizations, and even family members.
WASHINGTON — Ext loneliness in the U.S. poses as deadly a health hazard as smoking a dozen cigarettes a day, costing the health care industry billions of dollars each year, the U.S. Surgeon General said Tuesday, declaring the latest public health epidemic.
About half of American adults say they have experienced loneliness, said Dr. Vivek Murthy report from his office.
“We now know that loneliness is a common feeling experienced by many people. It is like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling our body sends us when something we need to survive is missing,” Murthy said in an interview with the Associated Press. “Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s wrong. That’s why I issued this recommendation, to lift the curtain on the struggle that too many people are fighting.”
The declaration is intended to raise awareness of loneliness, but will not unlock federal funding or programs dedicated to combating the problem.
Americans who have become less involved with houses of worship, community organizations, and even family members in recent decades consistently report increased feelings of loneliness, research shows. The number of single-parent households has also doubled over the past 60 years.
But the crisis deepened when COVID-19 spread, forcing schools and workplaces to close their doors and sending millions of Americans into isolation at home from relatives and friends.
During the coronavirus pandemic, people have destroyed their friend groups and reduced the amount of time they spend with those friends, according to a report by the chief medical officer. In 2020, Americans spent about 20 minutes a day in person with friends, up from 60 minutes a day nearly two decades ago.
The loneliness epidemic hits young people between the ages of 15 and 24 especially 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 relationships also have a higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Isolation also increases the likelihood of depression, anxiety and dementia.
The surgeon general is calling on workplaces, schools, technology companies, community organizations, parents and others to make changes that will make the nation more connected. He advises people to join social groups and put down their phones when they catch up with friends; employers should carefully consider remote work policies; and health systems to ensure that doctors are trained to recognize the health risks of loneliness.
Technologies sharply exacerbated the problem of loneliness: one study cited in the report found that people who used social media for two hours or more daily were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who used such apps less often for 30 minutes a day.
Murthy said that social media, in particular, is contributing to the rise of loneliness. Its report says that technology companies are ensuring that children are protected, especially in relation to their behavior on social media.
“There’s really no substitute for face-to-face interaction,” Murthy said. “As we move more and more to the use of technology for our communication, we have lost much of the personal interaction. How do we develop technology that strengthens our relationships, not weakens them?”