According to a recent report by the US surgeon general, approximately 50% of US adults have experienced loneliness, which can be as deadly as smoking 12 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is a common feeling that the body sends us when something essential for survival is missing, similar to hunger or thirst.
Feelings of loneliness have increased in the US for decades, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the crisis by forcing many people to isolate themselves from friends and family. In 2020, Americans spent only 20 minutes per day in person with friends, a significant decrease from 60 minutes a day two decades earlier. Young people aged 15 to 24 have been particularly affected, reporting a 70% drop in time spent with friends.
The report shows that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by almost 30%, as poor social relationships are also linked to a higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Additionally, loneliness can increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety, and dementia.
Technology has also contributed to the loneliness problem. A study cited in the report found that people who spent two or more hours daily on social media were more than twice as likely to report feeling socially isolated than those who used such apps for less than 30 minutes a day.
To address this issue, Dr. Vivek Murthy suggests that people who feel lonely should join community groups and limit their use of phones when interacting with friends. Employers should consider their remote work policies carefully, and health systems should provide training for doctors to understand the health risks associated with loneliness.