U.S. surgeon general calls loneliness a new epidemic, outlines plan to boost social connection

ByDenise Dador KABC logo
Wednesday, May 3, 2023
U.S. surgeon general describes loneliness as new health epidemic
Loneliness and isolation can increase your risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking cigarettes every day.

A pandemic of loneliness is sweeping the country. It's a health crisis as lethal as chronic smoking.

Now a new U.S. government report highlights the impacts and outlines a new initiative to tackle isolation as a public-health priority.

Moving from Australia was a big change for medical administrator Yvonne Cheng. And just as her family was adjusting, the pandemic hit.

"Not being able to go out and see friends anymore. Was worried about my daughter's upbringing and her socialization with children," she said.

For so many like Cheng, the stress of feeling isolated took its toll.

"Loneliness was actually a problem before the pandemic. But the pandemic for the last three years has clearly made things much worse," said UC Irvine School of Medicine psychiatrist Dr. Jody Rawles.

Rawles says research reveals one in two Americans reports experiencing loneliness.

"People have been increasingly isolated. Increasingly stressed out," he said.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has released an advisory titled ""Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation."

"How we communicate with one another has shifted from in-person to online," Murthy said.

The physical health consequences of poor connection include a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke, and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.

Loneliness and isolation can increase your risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking cigarettes every day.

"Someone reading this may think 'Oh no, I'm lonely, I'm going to die of a heart attack.' Don't overthink it. Just start figuring out how you can make an incremental small improvement," said Rawles.

His prescription for reducing loneliness: Make a plan to meet someone or go on an outing. Just having a plan can boost your mood.

"You can endure a long day of work if you know that at the end of the day you're going to get together and go for a walk with a friend or a neighbor," Rawles said.

Murthy's National Strategy to Advance Social Connection includes promoting libraries and parks as places to gather as well as improving access to paid family leave.

"Making sure our workplaces cultivate connections, our schools teach our children about how to manage their emotions and understand emotions," Murthy said.

Cheng is grateful for the return to in-person work and school. She believes human beings are resilient.

"Everyone is really excited to go back into the world now. And it's lovely to see that we are able to go back," she said.