Former Surgeon General Declares Loneliness Epidemic [Guest Blog]
NOTE: My friend, Brandon Dyer, is the Executive Director of Community Renewal Pottawatomie County, in Shawnee, OK. This insightful article about the epidemic of loneliness was written by Brandon, and we’re “borrowing” it because loneliness is real! Love your neighbors, y’all!
Dr. Vivek Murthy served as US Surgeon General from 2014 to 2017. As an internal medicine doctor in Boston, prior to his service as Surgeon General, Dr. Murthy treated many patients dealing with diabetes, high blood pressure and different types of cancer. He discovered that the most common illness his patients faced was not what you might expect. It was not heart disease or diabetes, although those are serious illnesses. The most common illness his patients faced was loneliness. And particularly, loneliness stemming from a lack of meaning, self-worth and social connection.
Most people will not come right out and suggest that they are lonely. Nevertheless, research suggests that somewhere between a third and a half of Americans report feeling lonely, depending on the study. Loneliness causes the body to experience stress and there are dozens and dozens of studies linking stress to serious medical conditions. The reduction in lifespan associated with loneliness is equivalent to the reduction in lifespan from smoking about 15 cigarettes a day. It is actually greater than the reduction in lifespan associated with obesity. Think about that. We would all agree that smoking and obesity pose serious risks to our health. And we make varying degrees of effort to avoid these risks. But how many of us would recognize that the effects of loneliness pose equal, if not greater risks to our health? Could there be new social habits for us to consider which are equally important as the habits of healthy eating or exercise?
The research overwhelmingly says yes. The bottom line is we need each other. We are fundamentally social creatures. We need human connection to function properly. However, it seems that we place less emphasis on human connection as we do on other important health considerations. Human connection is more than having lots of friends or having an active social life. Casual connections, even many casual connections, are not enough to satisfy our deepest longings of being known and understood. As relationships become increasingly disconnected, the very fabric holding together our society begins to unravel.
But there is good news! We can reverse the effects of loneliness far easier than the effects of heart disease or diabetes. Every point of human connection works to re-weave the social fabric of our society. Take food to a grieving neighbor. Listen to a friend when life has gotten the best of them. Genuinely try to understand another’s point of view. Developing habits of meaningful social connection will not only work collectively for a better community, it will also lead to a better quality of life.