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Loneliness is now as dangerous to your health as smoking, increasing the risk of premature death by up to 60 percent.

And, its cost is not just in human lives lost or impacted, it’s also hurting businesses with employers losing billions.

In the U.S., stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually.

The figures were part of an alert by the United States Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who released a Surgeon General Advisory addressing the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in the US.

This issue has been prevalent even before the COVID-19 pandemic, with around half of U.S. adults reporting measurable levels of loneliness. Disconnection has a profound impact on our mental, physical, and societal health, with loneliness and isolation increasing the risk of developing mental health challenges and premature death.

The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation lays out a comprehensive framework for a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection. The advisory highlights recommendations for individuals, governments, workplaces, health systems, and community organisations to increase connection in their lives, communities, and across the country to improve their health.

Dr. Murthy emphasised the importance of building social connection in our lives, stating that our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight. He called for the prioritisation of social connection, just as critical public health issues like tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders have been addressed.

The consequences of poor or insufficient connection go beyond our mental and emotional well-being.

Physical consequences

It can also have severe physical health consequences, including:

  • a 29 percent increased risk of heart disease,
  • a 32 percent increased risk of stroke,
  • and a 50 percent increased risk of developing dementia in older adults.
  • lacking social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60 percent.

Loneliness and isolation also significantly contribute to mental health challenges. The risk of developing depression among people who report feeling lonely is often more than double that of people who rarely or never feel lonely. Loneliness and social isolation in childhood increase the risk of depression and anxiety both immediately and well into the future. With more than one in five adults and more than one in three young adults living with a mental illness in the U.S., addressing loneliness and isolation is critical in order to fully address the mental health crisis in America, said Dr. Murthy.

An Epidemic

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” said the Surgeon General.

“Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritise building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders. Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

“We cannot afford to ignore the impact of loneliness and social isolation on our health and well-being any longer. It’s time to treat them as the public health issues they are and take action to address them.”

While the epidemic of loneliness and isolation is widespread and has profound consequences for our individual and collective health and well-being, the advisory highlights that social connection is the medicine hiding in plain sight.

Evidence shows that increased connection can help reduce the risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, dementia, and depression. Communities where residents are more connected with one another fare better on several measures of population health, community safety, community resilience when natural disasters strike, prosperity, and civic engagement.

National Strategy on loneliness

The new National Strategy to Advance Social Connection is based on six foundational pillars:

  1. Strengthen Social Infrastructure: Connections are not just influenced by individual interactions, but also by the physical elements of a community (parks, libraries, playgrounds) and the programs and policies in place. To strengthen social infrastructure, communities must design environments that promote connection, establish and scale community connection programs, and invest in institutions that bring people together.
  2. Enact Pro-Connection Public Policies: National, state, local, and tribal governments play a role in establishing policies like accessible public transportation or paid family leave that can support and enable more connection among a community or a family.
  3. Mobilise the Health Sector: Health care providers are well-positioned to assess patients for the risk of loneliness and intervene because loneliness and isolation are risk factors for several major health conditions (including heart disease, dementia, and depression) as well as premature death.
  4. Reform Digital Environments: We must critically evaluate our relationship with technology and ensure that how we interact digitally does not detract from meaningful and healing connection with others.
  5. Deepen Our Knowledge: A more robust research agenda, beyond the evidence outlined in the advisory, must be established to further our understanding of the causes and consequences of social disconnection, populations at risk, and the effectiveness of efforts to boost connection.
  6. Cultivate a Culture of Connection: The informal practices of everyday life (the norms and culture of how we engage one another) significantly influence the relationships we have in our lives. We cannot be successful in the other pillars without a culture of connection.