The epidemic of isolation is as harmful as smoking

by Lisa Jarvis

Your doctor’s orders for staying healthy might include a daily routine of eating your broccoli, going to the gym and getting a good night’s sleep. Now, the U.S. surgeon general would like to add another action item to the list: Reach out to a friend. 

In a new report, Vivek Murthy says the U.S. is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness and isolation that can be as harmful to our health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Murthy also offers practical fixes: public policies and spaces that bring people together, as well as simple things like texting a friend or volunteering. 

If that feels squishy, or so obvious that you wonder why it needed to be spelled out for the public, consider how little the U.S. as a society acknowledges its disconnectedness — and how few people understand its detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. There are very real consequences to living with social isolation, and the U.S. needs to make sweeping changes at a societal and individual level to foster deeper, healthier connections. 

Just 16% of people in the U.S. said they “felt very attached” to their local community in 2018, according to the report, and about half of adults overall experienced some degree of loneliness — statistics that surely worsened during the pandemic. While young adults and older adults are particularly vulnerable to loneliness as are those struggling financially or experiencing health challenges, “no one is immune,” says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, who was also the senior editor on Murthy’s report. “Humans are social beings, so we have social needs.”  

Decades of evidence has made clear the connection between our need to be connected to others and our physical health. The American Heart Association released a scientific statement last year highlighting years of data linking feelings of loneliness to heart disease and strokes. Another recent study showed that social isolation increased the risk of dementia in older adults. 

Conversely, emerging research suggests people with a strong social network can better manage their diabetes, which in turn can prevent complications from the disease. During the pandemic, fewer people died in U.S. counties with strong social ties. And a sense of community is crucial to the long-term mental health of young people, linked to lower instances of attempted suicide and substance abuse, Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, recently told me. 

What does it mean to be socially connected? The concept takes on many dimensions in our daily life, from the people who fulfill emotional or intimacy needs to those who simply enhance our well-being. Having a strong network is particularly important in a time of crisis. These are the people who set up the meal train when you have a health emergency, rake the leaves out of the storm drains so your basement doesn’t flood, or offer support if you’ve lost your job. 

It also includes the person who hands you a coffee every morning at Starbucks or punches your train ticket in the evening. “Even just the small interactions we have with acquaintances or a stranger in our community, being able to smile and say hello, help us feel a part of something,” Holt-Lunstad says. Even those so-called loose ties are linked to positive outcomes, she says. 

Fixing society’s loneliness problem won’t happen overnight and will take individual and collective effort. 

For individuals, the first step is integrating social isolation into our understanding of mental and physical health. Nurturing relationships, new and old, is also crucial. That could mean being more mindful about staying connected to friends — texting or actually picking up the phone — or making the effort to build a deeper network in your community through volunteering or taking a class. And, of course, if you’re really struggling, reach out to a professional for help. 

Murthy’s report outlines many practical steps including policies that encourage connectivity such as paid family leave, or establishing physical spaces such as libraries and parks where people can come together. And more physicians need to recognize social isolation as a health risk — and, in turn, be armed with the tools to monitor for it and help their patients address it. 

Finally, we need more research into the root cause of our social isolation. Cell phones and social media are easy targets for blame, but the body of evidence around their harms vs. benefits is complex, says Holt-Lunstad. They can’t account for all our discontent. 

And if you are reading this and thinking that these feelings of isolation don’t describe you, that’s wonderful. And also: Your work is not done. You are part of the glue that holds us all together, and can contribute to a happier, healthier society. That can manifest in very simple ways, like smiling and saying hello to your neighbor. It could be resisting the urge to make a negative comment when the grocery line moves too slowly, or your coffee order is wrong. 

These small gestures matter, Holt-Lunstad says. “Being pleasant, giving someone the benefit of the doubt rather than being short or impatient — those small acts of kindness can go a long way.”  

The pandemic surely deepened our crisis of isolation, but also had many moments that reinforced the value of a connected society. Remember the nightly scenes of people banging pots to show their gratitude to hospital workers? Or taking to the streets to cheer as trucks carrying the first COVID vaccines as they left Pfizer’s manufacturing site? The emergency has passed, but we need to keep exercising that muscle of inner generosity — after all, it’s good for our health. 

Lisa Jarvis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering biotech, health care and the pharmaceutical industry. Previously, she was executive editor of Chemical & Engineering News.