On Tuesday, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared that the nation is facing a new epidemic — loneliness. In his announcement, Murthy explained the social and cultural shifts that have led to the overwhelming loneliness many Americans are experiencing, described the dire health consequences that loneliness contributes to, and outlined a series of “pillars” to address the problem.
“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an under-appreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight — one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives,” Murthy said in a statement.
As part of the advisory report, Murthy explained that lack of social connections has dramatic health effects — and, perhaps shockingly, that loneliness can impact mortality as much as smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Decreased social connections are also associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.
To address the epidemic of loneliness, the advisory includes six pillars to help Americans repair and reclaim their vital social connections:
- Strengthening infrastructure that promotes social interaction, like parks and public libraries. The advisory report specifically mentions fostering environments in which volunteer organizations, sports groups, religious groups, and member associations can flourish.
- Enacting local, state, and federal policies that cultivate feelings of community, namely accessible public transportation and paid leave policies. These policies allow people, specifically parents, to build connections within their communities and develop and access a network of support and companionship.
- Involving the health sector. Train healthcare professionals to recognize and address problems arising from loneliness and expand the scope of the public health sector to track and address the “prevalence of social disconnection” community-wide.
- Reforming digital environments to minimize harm and foster healthy connections. Examples include requiring data transparency, setting across-the-board safety standards, and developing pro-connection tech to make the internet a safer and more community-oriented place.
- Expanding research and public awareness and deepening the breadth of knowledge around loneliness, its impacts, and how best to address it.
- “Cultivating a culture of connection” by teaching the importance of social connection in schools and workplaces, modeling positive behavior in leadership positions, and encouraging kindness, respect, and service.
To some extent, many of these fixed can be encouraged and in some cases implemented by the executive branch — from the Department of Education pushing for more social spaces in schools or the Department of Labor giving workplace recommendations that encourage socialization. But the executive branch can’t fix this problem alone. Loneliness is a problem that stems from the root of everything — and will require all citizens, employers, and branches of government to work together to truly turn the tides.
Murthy noted that while loneliness isn’t a specifically American problem, participation in social groups has declined in recent decades. According to data compiled by Gallup, Pew Research Center, and the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, in 1999, 70% of Americans reported belonging to a church or other faith group, which has traditionally provided community-driven avenues for social connection. By 2020, that number had dropped to 47%.
Loneliness itself isn’t causing these health problems, but the stress and disconnection of loneliness can increase inflammation and other markers that contribute to disease. Similarly, people who lack social connection are more likely to spend time in sedentary activities, contributing to an overall decrease in health.
The Surgeon General’s advisory report is a clarion call for Americans to move away from isolationist and exclusionist attitudes and work toward community building.
“If we fail to do so, we will pay an ever-increasing price in the form of our individual and collective health and well-being,” he explained. “And we will continue to splinter and divide until we can no longer stand as a community or a country. Instead of coming together to take on the great challenges before us, we will further retreat to our corners—angry, sick, and alone.”