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The United States could use a ‘minister of loneliness,’ too

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One survey, conducted in 2010 by the AARP, found that 35 percent of the Americans aged 45 and older — about 44 million people — were chronically lonely, up from 20 percent just a decade earlier.

This week, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, created a new government post: a “Minister for Loneliness.”

The official assigned to the post has been charged with coming up with policies to help Brits combat loneliness — what May called “the sad reality of modern life.”

Before you dismiss the idea as just another example of British eccentricity, consider this: Loneliness is now recognized as a major — and growing — public health problem. 

And that’s as true here in the United States as in the United Kingdom.

How big is the problem? One survey, conducted in 2010 by the AARP, found that 35 percent of the Americans aged 45 and older — about 44 million people — were chronically lonely, up from 20 percent just a decade earlier. (Those are not only people living alone; many married people are lonely, too.)

Loneliness is not just a problem for middle aged or older people, however. A 2016 Harris poll of American adults of all ages found that nearly a third said they experienced loneliness at least once a week. And a study by the British Mental Health Foundation reported that young adults aged 18 to 34 were more likely to feel lonely than people over the age of 55.

Early deaths

Why is loneliness a public health problem? Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a New York internist and researcher, offered this explanation in a 2016 commentary for the New York Times:

Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation and higher levels of stress hormonesOne recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.

Another analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 percent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age.

Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions. These effects start early: Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors. All told, loneliness is as important a risk factor for early death as obesity and smoking.

A ‘loneliness epidemic’

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, has argued that loneliness is a greater public health hazard than obesity.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt-Lunstad said last summer at an annual meeting of the American Psychological Association (APA). “With an increasing aging population, the effect on public health is only anticipated to increase. Indeed, many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a ‘loneliness epidemic.’ The challenge we face now is what can be done about it.”

According to an APA press release, Holt-Lunstad told the psychologists that “greater emphasis could be placed on social skills training for children in schools and doctors should be encouraged to include social connectedness in medical screening, she said. Additionally, people should be preparing for retirement socially as well as financially, as many social ties are related to the workplace.”

Holt-Lunstad urged communities to  “make sure to include shared social spaces that encourage gathering and interaction, such as recreation centers and community gardens.”

As Khuller notes, “A great paradox of our hyper-connected digital age is that we seem to be drifting apart. Increasingly, however, research confirms our deepest intuition: Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being.”

“It’s up to all of us — doctors, patients, neighborhoods and communities — to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed,” he adds.

Sounds like the U.S. could use a loneliness minister, too.

FMI: You can read Khuller’s commentary on the New York Times’ website.

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