We all feel lonely at times. It was on the rise before COVID with social networks giving a false sense of connection. But the pandemic threw everyone into years of isolation and minimal contact to the point loneliness has become a public health crisis.
The U.S. surgeon general’s office recently reported that social disconnection is as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is the subjective perception of social isolation. Social isolation is the objective limitation of social interaction with others. New information shares that these situations can increase the risk of health problems.
The CDC shares that some groups are at higher risk of social isolation and loneliness than others:
Research suggests that loneliness impacts some groups more than others, including:
- Low-income adults.
- Young adults.
- Older adults.
- Adults living alone.
- People with chronic diseases and disabilities.
- Individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (or queer).
Apart from that, people that fall into the following categories are also at higher risk:
- Having a lower income (less than $50,000/year).
- Having a psychiatric or depressive disorder
- Being marginalized or discriminated against
- Challenges to accessing resources, such as living in a rural areas, limited transportation, language barriers
- Stress due to a lack of resources
- Having a chronic disease or condition
- Having a long-term disability
- Being unmarried, unpartnered, or living alone
- Being a victim of violence or abuse
- Major life transitions like getting divorced, losing a job, or loss of a loved one.
These lists highlight the truth of it- loneliness and social isolation are far-reaching and many of us will experience both at some time or another. The past years highlighted exactly how our health depends not only on factors such as physical activity, diet, preventative care, and health-supporting habits (hello, hand-hygiene), but also gatherings and interaction with other humans. We are social creatures, after all.
Health effects of social isolation and loneliness
Loneliness and social isolation can affect physical health.
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease and stroke (increased risk by 29% and 32%, respectively)
- Depression and anxiety
- Suicidality and self-harm
- Dementia (increased risk by 50%)
- Earlier death
- Increased pain
Mortality can be an outcome from these afflictions, said Dr. Hollmann. A chronic illness that keeps someone from seeing other people could lead to social isolation or loneliness. “Likewise, that social isolation or loneliness can exacerbate the chronic illness and eventually have other health effects all the way up to mortality,” said Dr. Hollmann.
What can be done to prevent loneliness?
If you start to feel loneliness on a regular basis, speak to your provider about the situation. In addition to partnering with a healthcare professional, sources share the following tips that may help you build emotional connections:
- Find hobbies you enjoy: Taking part in activities you enjoy can be a great way to meet others with similar interests. Consider a book club, art class, fitness group or any other activity where you can interact with others who enjoy the same things.
- Volunteer for an organization you support: Volunteering will not only give you a sense of accomplishment and pride, but it’s an opportunity to meet others who support that same organization.
- Join support groups: Support groups are an excellent way to connect with others who you have something in common with, such as a mental or physical condition.
- Routinely contacting family and friends: Attempting to stay connected, even if only by phone or video chat, can help nurture your emotional health and help prevent loneliness.
- Maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regime: Living a healthy lifestyle promotes overall wellness and reduces your risk of chronic medical conditions—which could interfere with your social life.
Social interaction, physical touch (like hugs!), are essential to our health. If you start to feel lonely, don’t hesitate to share those feelings with those close to you and your healthcare provider. If you aren’t in close proximity to friends and family, help squash feelings of isolation by participating in local gatherings. Even visiting a farmer’s market and strolling and interacting with vendors and other attendees can give you the boost you need. Next week we’ll share an assortment of activities happening in Tucson over the next few months.
-The Loneliness Epidemic Persists: A Post-Pandemic Look at the State of Loneliness among U.S. Adults. The Cigna Group; December 2021. Accessed March 21, 2023.