Loneliness Now Declared a Public Health Epidemic

Vivek Murthy, an American physician and the United States Surgeon General, says widespread loneliness in the country is as harmful to one's health as smoking up to 15 cigarettes daily, costing the healthcare sector billions of dollars yearly.

In a study titled "Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation" from his office, Murthy stated that around half of U.S. individuals claim to have experienced loneliness and declared it the latest public health epidemic on May 2.

We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It’s like hunger or thirst. It’s a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing.

- Vivek Murthy

"Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that’s not right. That’s why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing," he says.

According to research, Americans have consistently reported feeling more lonely over the past several decades as their involvement in places of worship, neighborhood organizations, and even their families has decreased. Over the past 60 years, single-person households have also doubled.

However, the situation significantly deteriorated when COVID-19 spread, making many Americans separate themselves from family and friends, and businesses and schools shut down.

According to the research, during the COVID-19 pandemic, people cut back on socializing and narrowed their networks of friends. Americans only spent about 20 minutes each day in person with friends in 2020, compared to 60 minutes each day roughly two decades earlier. Younger people between the ages of 15 and 24 are particularly affected by loneliness. The specified age group had a 70% drop in friend-related social interaction during that time.

The study found that those who experience loneliness had an approximately 30% increased risk of dying young. People with poor social connections are also more susceptible to heart disease and stroke. Isolation also raises a person's chances of dementia, despair, and anxiety.

Murthy is pushing organizations, institutions of higher learning, tech companies, civic organizations, parents, and others to implement changes that would enhance the country's connectedness. "Americans have become increasingly lonely and isolated, and this lack of social connection is having profound effects on our mental and physical health," he says.

He advises people to participate in their communities and to put their phones aside while they are among friends. Additionally, he suggests that businesses carefully consider their policies regarding remote workers and that medical education programs help doctors recognize the negative health effects of loneliness.

According to Murthy, social media, in particular, is responsible for the growth of loneliness. His report calls on digital companies to put protections for children, especially about their social media usage.

The advisory continued that people who spend two hours or more daily on social media are more than twice as likely to feel socially isolated as those who only use social media for less than 30 minutes daily. This finding implies that technology has made the loneliness problem substantially worse. Technology unconsciously replaces face-to-face connection, monopolizes attention, degrades the caliber of conversations, and even diminishes one's self-esteem, which may result in increased loneliness, FOMO (fear of missing out), conflict, and decreased social connection.

There is no alternative to face-to-face engagement, says Murthy. The world lost much in-person engagement while transitioning to technology-focused communication on an increasingly large scale. He places great importance on questioning how technology may be designed to improve rather than damage our relationships.

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