Loneliness: A Public Health Crisis

As a child in the 1970s, the anti-smoking advertising and public health messages in school and on TV made a lasting impression on me. I recall stories of classmates lecturing their parents on the dangers of smoking and even flushing cigarettes down the toilet. This was a decade before the health impact of second-hand smoke was widely acknowledged, and long after the Surgeon General’s warning was placed on cigarette packages.  So did all those efforts even matter?

If you’ve stepped into a restaurant, workplace and almost any hotel since the mid-1990s, you’ll see irrefutable evidence of the decrease in smoking in public places. And while some of the smoking has just moved inside homes and cars, a report in 2014, 50 years after the cigarette warning labels were added to packages, “estimates that 8 million Americans avoided premature death as a result of tobacco control efforts launched by the 1964 report,” according to NPR.  So, in short, yes, the efforts to curb smoking have made a significant impact.

And now we are facing another public health crisis, an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. On May 2nd, 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General took an important step toward addressing this important topic, issuing an Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community. The report takes aim at what he labels, “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”

Given the profound consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an opportunity, and an obligation, to make the same investments in addressing social connection that we have made in addressing tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis.

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on the
Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community

When Sara and I first started writing about friendship and the importance of connection, we were particularly inspired by Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Dr. Murthy’s recent advisory takes the work of his book further, detailing how social connection impacts health factors like cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cognitive function. Not to mention increased risk for depression, anxiety and suicide: Loneliness and social isolation increase the risk for premature death by 26% and 29%, respectively.

The report includes important data on the many ways we’ve become more isolated, including the fact that “time spent with friends declined 20 hours a month between 2003 and 2020.” As those years coincided with the early years of marriage and parenting for me and Sara, we attributed some of our own decreased time for friendships to life stage. Apparently, it’s a far bigger issue than that.  

With one in two Americans reporting feelings of loneliness in recent years, the lack of connection has clearly reached epidemic levels. Many factors drive social isolation; among those are cultural and societal factors, driving us apart when as humans we are wired for connection. Dr. Murthy writes in the advisory that connection is “as essential to survival as food, water, and shelter.”

It is encouraging to see that more than half of the report addresses the power of “Socially Connected Communities” and provides actionable recommendations on how individuals, communities, businesses and leaders can ‘advance social connection.’ The report details the Six Pillars to Advance Social Connection, sharing ways that community infrastructure, the health sector and cultural values combat isolation.

We can build lives and communities that are healthier and happier.

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D.

The link between social connection and health is undeniable, so we challenge our readers to find ways they can take steps to combat isolation, both for themselves and others. This is a commitment Sara and I made in early 2021 when we first started this blog, and we hope you will continue to join us on this important journey.

One thought on “Loneliness: A Public Health Crisis

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  1. Great piece. Getting involved in a local civic organization that interests you or volunteering/running for town government, volunteering for a town committee, or helping out in your kids’ schools are all great ways to find others with whom you share common values and build community!

    Liked by 1 person

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