Column – America has a loneliness epidemic, and it’s getting worse
Published 4:49 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023
There are many ways in which we can improve our health and our individual life expectancy, and one of the most positive is to actively battle loneliness.
That’s a key finding in a remarkable advisory published this year by U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”
Murthy toured the country following his appointment in 2021 and found, to his surprise, irrefutable evidence that Americans feel increasingly lonely and isolated from one another. And loneliness is more than just a social issue, he concluded.
“Loneliness and isolation represent profound threats to our health and well-being,” he wrote in the introduction to the advisory. In fact, Murthy’s advisory concludes that loneliness and social isolation increase the risk of premature death 26%. That risk is statistically equal to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. People experiencing chronic loneliness are 29% more likely to have heart disease and 32% more likely to suffer a stroke.
And the poor health associated with loneliness impacts the whole of society. Social isolation alone accounts for an estimated $6.7 billion in excess Medicare spending annually, largely due to increased hospital and nursing facility spending, the advisory concluded.
The extent of loneliness in the U.S. is staggering. About half of U.S. adults report experiencing loneliness, and surprisingly, some of the highest rates are among young adults. That makes loneliness and isolation more widespread than other health risks, including smoking (12%), diabetes (15%) and even obesity (42%).
Loneliness also accounts for lower academic achievement among students and poorer performance at work for those in the workforce. Stress-related absenteeism attributed to loneliness costs employers an estimated $154 billion annually.
Humans are social animals. We need to be connected with other people. It is a fundamental human need, as essential to survival as food, water and shelter, the advisory concludes.
And yet, for reasons that may be varied and often complex, we are becoming less socially connected over time.
It’s not a new problem. Just ask a Jaycee — if you can still find one — or a Ruritan, Kiwanian or Rotarian. One estimate is that club membership has declined by 25% during the past 50 years. I suspect it’s higher than that.
Or poke your head in the door of a church on Sunday morning and see how many empty pews there are. Nowhere has the decline in social connection had a more profound impact than on religion. Gallup first began measuring church membership back in 1937. At that time, 73% of Americans declared themselves members of a church or synagogue. That number remained at about 70% for six decades, until the end of the 20th century. During the past two decades, it plummeted, and in 2020 only 47% of Americans said they were church members.
I note that decline, as did the surgeon general, not as a religious statement but as a social statement. Churches have historically been the very core of social connectivity in the U.S., and the ministry of members to one another has been hugely important in attacking loneliness and isolation.
Whether it’s a decline in club membership, church participation or a combination of factors, isolation and loneliness have had another effect on Americans — less trust in one another.
Americans have never been big on trusting each other, apparently. Polls taken in 1972 (that was during Vietnam and Watergate) revealed that roughly 45% of Americans felt they could reliably trust other Americans. Since then, we have become far more polarized and isolated, and not surprisingly, less trusting. A poll in 2016 showed the “trust” level had declined to 30%.
It stands to reason that if we make an effort to battle loneliness, we should find ourselves healthier and happier. We might even find ourselves liking each other more and, maybe even trusting each other a bit more.
The answer to loneliness lies in something each of us will have to find, but we ought to be sensitive to loneliness in our own lives as well as in the lives of our family and neighbors. Finding a cure for loneliness will be worth the search. And as we look for it, there’s a civic club, a volunteer program or a church with doors wide open and eager to embrace us.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.