Loneliness: The New Greatest Threat to Your Life?

When you think of the various ways that you could meet an untimely demise, loneliness isn’t usually at the top of the list. In fact, many people don’t think of it as a threat at all.

But here’s the shocking reality: Loneliness and isolation have surpassed obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking to become the number one public health issue threatening health and longevity in the United States. 

In a groundbreaking new report, the U.S. Surgeon General calls the crisis of loneliness and disconnection “an epidemic,” one that poses a dire risk to both our physical and mental wellbeing.

The statistics underlying this alert from the nation’s top doctor on public health issues are sobering. Nearly half of American adults report feeling lonely, with levels highest among young adults. Think about that – it’s likely that at least one in four people you know is struggling with loneliness.

Yet, less than 1 in 5 Americans recognize loneliness and isolation as significant problems in their own lives. This obliviousness to the issue persists despite mounting evidence over decades demonstrating a heightened risk for premature death, heart disease, dementia, depression, and suicide among those lacking sufficient social connection.

In calling attention to this overlooked public health crisis, the Surgeon General’s report compels us to confront the life-threatening reality of loneliness and isolation in America. We can begin crafting an urgently needed response by acknowledging the severe costs of losing human connection at both individual and societal levels. 

At AlignUs, we are committed to bringing people together to create meaningful and sustainable connections. With loneliness leading to such a broad range of physical, mental, and emotional health concerns, we believe it is essential to prioritize meaningful interaction with others. 

Before we look at some potential solutions to the loneliness epidemic, let’s dig into the report – and what it means for our collective future.

Key Findings from The US Surgeon General’s Report

The report – which you can find online here – showcases just how little we truly know about the nature of human connection. From data collected in focus groups, surveys, and literature reviews, it became clear that loneliness has wide-reaching consequences – ranging from cognitive decline to an increased risk of mortality.

The Shocking Prevalence of Loneliness and Isolation

The prevalence of loneliness and isolation in America has reached crisis levels. 

Think about this from the report: Nearly 50% of American adults—equivalent to over 160 million people—reported feeling lonely in recent national surveys. 

Rates are highest among young adults, with this group nearly twice as likely to report loneliness as adults over 65. Over the past few decades, loneliness among young adults has increased year-over-year. 

Those facing financial hardship also shoulder a disproportionate burden, with lower-income adults 10% more likely to experience loneliness than higher earners. This means that millions of people are going through life without feeling close to another person.

The Health Impacts and Mortality Risks of Loneliness

The health consequences stemming from loneliness and isolation are severe. Lacking social connection carries a mortality risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Imagine – you could be living a highly health-focused yet still be at a greater risk for early death than someone who smokes a pack of cigarettes per day.

Loneliness also heightens the odds of developing numerous diseases, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease, 32% increased risk of stroke, and nearly 50% increased risk of dementia. The health impacts of loneliness and isolation help explain their ranking as the number one public health issue today.

The Economic and Societal Costs

Beyond devastating effects on longevity and disease burden, loneliness and isolation also inflict substantial economic and societal costs. 

Social isolation among older adults alone accounts for an estimated $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually. When you look at the broader economic impact, loneliness, and social isolation cost the global economy trillions of dollars each year.

These costs are likely to escalate further as our population ages and more people experience increased isolation levels. This is why actively creating a sense of community—both on an individual level with older adults and also in terms of larger-scale initiatives like fostering greater workplace connection—is so crucial to our collective well-being. Why Connection Matters

Connection as a Fundamental Human Need

Our need for connection with others lies at the very core of our health and well-being. Think of the moments that bring you the most joy—with family, friends, and colleagues. It’s these moments of connection that we live for and work hard to create more of in our lives.

Social connection serves as a fundamental human need on par with food, water, and shelter. Our brains have literally evolved to expect and depend upon proximity with others. 

Lacking connections taxes us greatly by forcing us to meet life’s demands largely alone. And that context isn’t just limited to physical proximity; it also applies to our emotional and mental states.

Biological Reasons

The presence or absence of social bonds profoundly impacts bodily systems tied to disease risk. The realities might surprise you!

Connection helps regulate inflammation, immune response, hormone levels, gene expression, and other biological processes that influence susceptibility to illness when dysfunctional. Isolation and loneliness can be as detrimental to these regulatory mechanisms as smoking and obesity. Conversely, connection enhances their healthy calibration – literally turning down the volume of inflammation and other triggers.

Social Effects

Connection is also essential for our emotional well-being, reducing stress, contributing to happiness, and giving us a sense of purpose in life. It’s been found to be an even stronger predictor than exercise or diet in promoting longevity and recovery from major health events. 

Connection gives us something that no amount of money can buy: relational support when we need it most.

At its core, connection is about feeling like we belong – something that every human needs in order to thrive. It’s an innate drive engrained in each of us that should not be taken lightly, so let’s commit to strengthening these bonds for ourselves as well as those around us.

It’s About More Than Just Us

The state of connection within communities also determines their functioning. More socially connected communities exhibit better population health, economic prosperity, preparation for and recovery from natural disasters, safety, and civic participation. 

Eroded social capital and trust in a community hampers its ability to advance shared objectives and withstand hardship. Our connections constitute the basic infrastructure enabling communities to thrive – that’s why we’re committed to helping build strong and connected communities.

Loneliness Is A Public Health Issue – So What Can We Do?

The scientific evidence leaves little doubt that social connection belongs among our most pressing public health priorities. As Surgeon General Vivek Murthy concluded, “If we fail to invest in social connection, we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country.” 

Heeding this advice, we have to take steps to begin to bridge divides, rebuild trust and make the world a better place for everyone. Here are just a few practical approaches we can take to create more connected communities:

Find Ways to Build Connectedness Among Your Community

Do you live in a close-knit neighborhood? Can you cook meals for others or lend a helping hand to those in need? Are there events, such as film screenings or book clubs, that could bring people together and encourage meaningful conversations? Discover ways to build connectedness among your community and create an atmosphere of belonging.

Promote Inclusion & Diversity

Seek out individuals with different backgrounds, interests, and perspectives. Aim to include them in decision-making processes and inspire their participation in activities that benefit the wider community. Show respect for all identities, speak up when necessary, be open-minded, and stand against discrimination.

Support Mental Health Services

Provide resources for mental health services — both online and offline — so everyone has access to the help they may need. Create an environment where individuals feel comfortable to talk about their mental health and find support from peers. There are more and more resources available now, so use your platform to spread awareness and advocate for better mental health services.

Encourage Collaboration & Cooperation

Promote collaboration and cooperation among your community members by hosting events, workshops, or online discussions. These activities can foster collective learning, encourage problem-solving, and drive positive change. 

Investing in meaningful relationships between community members, you are helping to create a more dynamic, resilient network of people working together towards common goals. And when you can create a sense of belonging and trust in the group, individuals will feel empowered to seek help and receive the support they need.

Let’s Grow Closer – Together

Loneliness and isolation now rank as the number one threat to health and longevity in America. Yet, for too long, the public and policymakers alike have underestimated the severity of this crisis and overlooked our human need for connection. 

As a result, over 160 million Americans across all ages now report feeling lonely, while rates of premature death, disease, health care costs, and lost workplace productivity continue to climb.

We can no longer afford inaction regarding this overlooked public health emergency. Only by recognizing social connection as an urgent priority—backed by resource investments on par with other major health issues—can we spark the comprehensive, collaborative action needed across all levels of society. We must continue educating the public, reforming policies and environments hampering connection, and facilitating meaningful bonds in our everyday lives.

Strengthening our individual relationships represents the critical first step toward restoring communal ties. Our connections constitute so much more than feel-good friendships. They serve as indispensable infrastructure enabling our health, productivity, and shared progress through hardship. 

At AlignUs, we are on a mission to bring people closer together. We strive to cultivate meaningful connections within families, workplaces, and communities through a suite of online resources and community-focused initiatives. Our vision is to empower connection in a way that ultimately uplifts us all. 

We believe that when we come together, we can build a better world. Let’s put an end to the loneliness epidemic and create a future filled with meaningful, lasting relationships!

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