Loneliness Is Officially a Threat to Our Health—Here Are 3 Simple Ways to Stay Connected

We need to take the loneliness epidemic seriously.


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Americans have reached epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation. According to the U.S. surgeon general’s recent advisory report, about half of U.S. adults report feeling lonely. And it’s more than a bummer or an unpleasant feeling—this loneliness is causing our physical and mental health to suffer. 

Loneliness and social isolation are as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the report states, and a lonely or isolated person is at a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, depression, dementia, and premature death.

In his staggering 81-page report, Vivek Murthy, MD, the surgeon general, explains how loneliness (a subjective distressing experience that results in perceived isolation) and social isolation (objectively having few social relationships, roles, or interactions) are more widespread than smoking, diabetes, and obesity, and are just as dangerous to overall health and longevity. 

Unfortunately, most people affected by loneliness or isolation don’t realize it’s this big of a threat to their health and longevity—but it is. 

Social connection is vital for overall health. The report found that being lonely increases the risk of premature death by 26 percent, and social isolation is even more detrimental, at 29 percent. To understand the connection between socialization and health, it helps to look at our brains.

How Loneliness Can Damage Our Health

Our brains are wired for connection. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University and an advisor on report, explains that humans have adapted to operate optimally in groups. 

“We’ve evolved to expect proximity to people we trust, and when it’s not there—when we’re isolated, we can’t trust those around us, or [when] we’re outside the group, it threatens our survival.”

Our bodies recognize that we need social connectivity to survive. The neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says the fact that we feel emotional pain (like loneliness) proves that evolution takes social connection seriously. Loneliness is a signal that something is missing. The same way our stomach growls when we need food.  

Loneliness and social isolation put the brain in a fight-or-flight mode. Imagine you’re in the wild, and a lion is chasing you. To stay alive, the brain releases stress hormones, cortisol and norepinephrine, through the body, which basically slows down all unnecessary functioning, including the ability to defend against viruses, so all of your energy goes towards running from that lion. At the same time, your brain ramps up the production of inflammatory white blood cells, which helps heal wounds and kill bacteria. The only goal: stay alive.

Once our needs are met (we’re safe from that lion, for example), our bodies return to normal. But, if we are persistently not meeting our needs—in this case, not getting enough social connection—the brain continues to release cortisol.

Kyler Shumway, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, explains that over time, our genes actually switch and turn off the receptors that recognize cortisol. Eventually, the brain produces more and more cortisol, resulting in chronic inflammation, which leads to a slew of serious illnesses ranging from heart disease to dementia.

There is some good news. Dr. Murthy’s loneliness report states that even after accounting for age, health, lifestyle practices, and socioeconomic status, studies suggest that social connectedness impacts mortality most, increasing someone’s chances of living longer by 50 percent. This means there is a significant protective benefit to nurturing our relationships, and fending off the health implications of loneliness. 

How Did We Get So Lonely?

A growing number of people report feeling detached from their communities, and the declining involvement in community organizations, like religious groups, clubs, and membership-based groups, is proof of that.

Young people are also spending less and less time with their friends. One 2022 study looked at 15 to 24 year olds over two decades and found that in-person time with friends dropped by nearly 70 percent. Then the COVID-19 pandemic threw fuel to the fire, making social participation not only less common, but essentially impossible.

It’s important to note that loneliness and social isolation do not affect everyone equally. People with already poor physical or mental health, disabilities, and financial insecurity are at higher risk. As are people living alone—the number of single-person households has doubled since 1960—and older adults have the highest social isolation rate.

“There is a common misconception where people think that if they are alone by choice, it may not be detrimental,” Holt-Lunstad says. But evidence shows that social isolation, regardless of whether someone feels lonely, has adverse health effects. As the report reads: “Despite current advancements that allow us to live without engaging with others (e.g., food delivery, automation, remote entertainment), our biological need to connect remains.”

The Best Ways to Deal With Loneliness 

Holt-Lunstad provides the following tips on how to sustain connection and combat loneliness:

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Nurture your existing relationships.

Think of being socially active as you would think about being physically active—you can't expect to go to the gym once and be in great shape. Sustained, regular activity over time—activity that is enjoyable and realistic for you—is the key. Similarly, our relationships take time and regular contact to develop fully. As with exercise, think small at first to build your connection muscle: try mini acts of love; brief, but thoughtful text messages; genuine check-ins; being fully present and engaged when together.

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Join a group that aligns with your interests.

Many groups provide opportunities to interact with people who are different from you. You get to engage with people of different views, backgrounds, and perspectives than your own, even when you share a common interest, goal, or value that led you to the group. This reduces the “us versus them” mentality and increases willingness to trust.

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Serve and help other people.

Whether you volunteer formally or practice doing small acts of kindness in day-to-day life, research shows that when you help others, you help yourself in return. It's hard to ask people for help, but if you help others, it's a way to break down some of those barriers and increase feelings of belonging.

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