A loneliness 'epidemic' is affecting a staggering number of American adults

An epidemic of loneliness is plaguing Americans, jeopardizing well-being, health and sense of belonging.

On Tuesday, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory detailing a framework toward a National Strategy to Advance Social Connection.

The advisory raises the alarm on the issue. Murthy recently wrote an op-ed talking about his own experiences with loneliness and has published a book on social connection and reducing loneliness.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated the problem, half of U.S. adults reported feelings of loneliness, the advisory notes.

“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,” Murthy said in the statement. “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders."

Social connection is vital to a person’s health and well-being, experts say, and national recognition furthers an urgent dialogue on the problem.

“The evidence has been mounting for decades in terms of documenting the significant consequences to our health and well-being,” said the lead scientific author on the surgeon general’s report, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, who has studied the effects of loneliness on health for years.

Though the pandemic has exacerbated loneliness, research suggests rates of feeling isolated have been increasing for years.

“There's been a simultaneous evidence of trends that suggests that we are becoming less socially connected,” Holt-Lunstad said. “Simply getting back to normal will not be enough. And that's why a national strategy is so important.”

Loneliness is making people sick

Loneliness is linked to an increased risk for anxiety and depression, heart disease, dementia and other health problems, as well as early death.

Lacking social connection has the same health consequences as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day or drinking six alcoholic beverages a day, according research by Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University.

“Part of this is recognizing that there are real health consequences. This is medically relevant,” said Holt-Lunstad, founding scientific chair of the U.S. Coalition to End Social Isolation and Loneliness and the Foundation for Social Connection. “This is far more than just affecting our emotional well-being, but truly affecting our health.”

Part of the framework includes recommendations to train clinicians to include psychosocial support as part of patients’ treatment plans.

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Young adults at higher risk

Older adults are a known population at risk of experiencing loneliness, but young adults are also suffering.

The surgeon general’s outline noted recent surveys show some of the highest rates of loneliness are among young adults, and rates are increasing annually since 1976.

A report from a Harvard University initiative called Making Caring Common found 6 in 10 young adults and 51% of mothers with young children reported feeling lonely.

“It should cause us all to ask some hard questions about why this passage to adulthood is so hard for young people,” said Harvard education lecturer Richard Weissbourd, director of the MCC project and lead author on the survey.

Depression and anxiety rates are also high among young adults, perpetuating a vicious cycle of isolation.

“When you become anxious and depressed, you also are more prone to withdraw and less likely to reach out to people, and it becomes harder to develop close relationships in many respects,” Weissbourd said. “Society is not really structured to support and connect young adults.”

The national framework includes a six-pronged set of recommendations to health systems, communities, workplaces and digital spaces. Among those is to "strengthen social infrastructure" and "reform digital environments." Others include to "enact pro-connection public policies;" mobilize the health sector; deepen knowledge (of social disconnection); and cultivate a culture of connection.

Combating loneliness is multifaceted

University at Buffalo social psychologist Shira Gabriel’s research shows antidotes to loneliness can be found in simple places.

These include regular interactions, called “weak connections,” or acquaintances people make during everyday interactions. However, those opportunities might decrease as “a lot of what people do is more automated than before” and remote work is more common, Gabriel said.

“That means less human interaction in our daily lives,” she said.

But there is hope. Communities can be a key to alleviating isolation. Attending events with a larger group can cultivate a sense of belonging, Gabriel explained. That could mean being part of a music community by attending concerts or attending religious gatherings.

“We get that feeling of community,” she said. “Being with other people, even people who are strangers, is really important for a sense of social connection and for a sense of well-being – and, in a sense, that life is meaningful. ... People underestimate the degree to which this broader sense of social connection can lead to well-being.”

She said research suggests the happiest people are those who have a healthy, personalized mix of those “nontraditional” sources of social connection as well as traditional sources, such as close relationships.

“What every person needs to find is the right mix for them of ways of feeling connected.”

Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America's loneliness epidemic: How US surgeon general aims to fight it