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Loneliness as hazardous as smoking, obesity, US Surgeon-General warns

Loneliness presents a profound public health threat akin to smoking and obesity, US Surgeon-General Vivek Murthy warned in an advisory this week, and could result in severe consequences that include heart disease, stroke and dementia.

The warning is aimed at persuading Americans to spend more time with each other in an increasingly divided and digital society, reports The Washington Post.

Half of all US adults experience loneliness, which affects mental and physical health, including a greater risk of depression, anxiety, and the advisory includes teaching children how to build healthy relationships; talking more to relatives, friends and co-workers; and spending less time online and on social media if it comes at the expense of in-person interactions.

Time spent with friends declined 20 hours a month between 2003 and 2020, according to research cited in the advisory, while time spent alone increased by 24 hours a month in that period. These trends probably intensified during the coronavirus pandemic as Americans were sequestered at home, experts say.

Loneliness grows from individual ache to public health hazard

The risk of premature death posed by social disconnection is similar to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than obesity and physical inactivity, according to a review of research on social connection. And socially connected people live longer.

Loneliness can lead to chronic stress, causing inflammation that damages tissues and blood vessels and is associated with chronic conditions, while isolation and frayed social connections could make it harder to maintain or develop healthy habits such as exercise and good nutrition.

“This isn’t just people feeling good or bad about their social life,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and lead science editor of the advisory. “It truly has an impact on our physical health.”

Technology’s role in the ‘loneliness epidemic’

Murthy said the government could fund research on loneliness to better understand the problem and identify the best interventions. He also urged different levels of government to prioritise social connection in policymaking, such as designing walkable communities that encourage residents to interact. He suggested healthcare providers screen patients for signs of loneliness as well.

Murthy has advocated for treating loneliness as a public health issue for years and wrote a book about the issue published early in the pandemic.

Research shows loneliness and isolation are most prevalent in people who are in poor health, struggling financially or living alone. Strikingly, older adults have the highest rates of social isolation, but young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely as senior citizens do.

The Surgeon-General’s advisory casts the digital revolution as a double-edged sword for social engagement. It has made it easier for people who feel like outcasts in their communities to find others like themselves around the world. But social media and the internet can also replace or degrade in-person socialising.

“In many ways, technology is a really great thing. It connects you to long-lost friends, and you can see faces on your computer screen,” said Kerstin Gerst Emerson, a clinical associate professor at the University of Georgia who studies loneliness.

“But it can have a negative side. It can disconnect you while you are with others… you are not present, you are on your phone. You can be in a room with family and friends, but you are not getting the social connections you want.”

One 2017 study showed that people who used social media more than two hours a day were twice as likely to experience increased feelings of social isolation compared with those who spent less than 30 minutes a day on social media.

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The Washington Post article – Loneliness poses profound public health threat, surgeon general says (Restricted access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Social isolation and loneliness linked to 27% higher CVD risk in older women

 

Loneliness links to poor heart outcomes and doubled mortality risk

 

Loneliness is as dangerous as obesity

 

 

 

 

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