Loneliness is the new smoking. Meta-analysis of over 300,000 patients found that social isolation poses as high of a mortality risk as chronic smoking. ￼Thanks to the interwebs and the widespread use of social media, we are supposedly more “connected” than ever before. Yet as a nation, we are also more lonely. In fact, a recent study found that a staggering 47 percent of Americans often feel alone, left out and lacking meaningful connection with others. This is true for all age ranges, from teenagers to older adults. The number of people who perceive themselves to be alone, isolated, or distant from others has reached epidemic levels both in the United States and in other parts of the world. In the United Kingdom, four in 10 citizens report feelings of chronic, profound loneliness, prompting the creation of a new cabinet-level position (the Minister for Loneliness) to help combat the problem.
However, exactly how the subjective sense of loneliness (experienced by many even while surrounded by others) is a threat to health, may be less intuitive.
While this “epidemic” of loneliness is increasingly recognized as a mental health issue, what’s becoming more recognized to researchers is the role loneliness plays as a critical determinant of health.
Loneliness can be deadly: it has been estimated to shorten a person’s life by 15 years, equivalent in impact to being obese or smoking 15 cigarettes per day. A recent study revealed a surprising association between loneliness and cancer mortality risk, pointing to the role loneliness plays in cancer’s course, including responsiveness to treatments. Biologists have shown that feelings of loneliness trigger the release of stress hormones that in turn are associated with higher blood pressure, decreased resistance to infection and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. There’s even evidence that a perceived sense of social isolation accelerates cognitive and functional decline and can serve as a preclinical sign for Alzheimer’s disease.
More than ever, during and post-pandemic, combating the mental and medical health deficits of loneliness appears to be a crucial goal for public health. Also see 13 Ways to Fight Loneliness.