Ask Beatty: What Can We Do About the Loneliness & Isolation Wreaking Havoc on Our Lives?
There is an epidemic of loneliness in the United States according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, MD. Lacking in significant social connections can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
His report, titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation” finds that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of U.S. Adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. The research findings warned that the physical consequences of poor connections can be devastating, including a 29% increased risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of stroke and a 50% increased risk of developing dementia for older adults.
More than half of Americans are lonely, according to 2021 poll, which also found that young adults are almost twice as likely to report feeling lonely as those over 65.
Fatal overdoses have soared among seniors. From 2002 to 2021 the rate of overdose death quadrupled to 12 from 3% per 100,00, as was reported in JAMA Psychiatry in March 2023, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, These death were both intentional, like suicides and accidental, reflecting drug interactions and errors. We can’t claim that loneliness and isolation are the direct causes of the increase in substance abuse among seniors.
What we can say is that people of all ages and stages in life who have substance abuse problems are more likely to experience loneliness than those living without addiction. They are often lacking in close, intimate, loving connections and relationships.
Our brains are wired for connection, says Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. “And when it’s not there, it threatens our survival.” The good news is that even after accounting for age, health, lifestyle practices and socioeconomic status, studies suggest that social connection impacts mortality most — increasing someone’s chance of living longer by 50%.
This means there is a significant protective benefit to nurturing our relationships and fending off the implications of loneliness.
Week after week, new articles and programs are being discussed that are alerting people and communities about the importance of dealing with this very serious and real problem.
I was particularly gratified to read Surgeon General Murthy’s recommendation about strengthening our social infrastructure — the programs, policies and structures that aid the development of healthy relationships; including supporting school-based programs that teach children about building healthy relationships, workplace design that foster social connection and community programs that bring people together.
Studies have found that individuals reported being happier on days they had more interactions. Other studies found similar benefits when people smiled and undertook brief conversations with a waiter or waitress or someone standing next to you in line at a bank or grocery store. Although these weak ties are not meant to be substitutes for the close ties that we hopefully have with family and friends, they nonetheless are strong predictors of wellbeing.
They provide you with a low-demand opportunity for interaction according to Dr. Antonucci, a psychologist at the University of Michigan and senior author of the study.
During the pandemic, people became accustomed to staying, and oftentimes working from, home. Our computers and other devices became our colleagues, friends and even family. Due to the real dangers of contracting COVID, people lived their lives primarily without the benefits of face-to-face, person-to-person connection and interaction.
Unfortunately, many continue to do so today, even though the risk of contracting COVID is minimal. The time is now to get out of your insular comfort zone and begin to engage in more person-to-person contacts with the outside world!
Are You Willing and Ready to Take Steps to Combat Your Loneliness & Isolation?
Connect and reconnect with people who you genuinely like, who care about you and your wellbeing. Be open to making new in-person friendships and relationships. Get involved in something that matters to you in your community. Most churches and synagogues offer in-person services and a variety of programs and activities, where you can develop new interests and meet new and interesting people.
Don’t opt for Zoom, when you can get dressed and get out of your apartment and house and enjoy face-to-face connections. Volunteer in an organization that could really benefit from your help. In helping others, we invariably help ourselves. If you happen to be home-bound, there are hundreds, if not thousands of online groups, lectures and activities where you will be able to connect with people. Zoom and FaceTime for those who cannot easily get out can be a lifesaver.
Studies show that individuals report being happier on days they had more positive interactions with others. Try logging all your interactions and see how much better you will feel. Have you thought about relocating to a community where connections and relationships are a priority?
If you find that you have tried to implement some or all these suggestions and that your feelings of loneliness and isolation persist, give yourself permission to reach out and ask for help. Issues including clinical depression or possible physical problems may need to be ruled out. Remember that we don’t need to navigate life’s stressors on our own.
A second opinion from a qualified therapist and/or doctor could really be helpful in your quest for connection and happiness.
Beatty Cohan, MSW, LCSW, AASECT is a nationally recognized psychotherapist, sex therapist, author of For Better for Worse Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love, columnist, national speaker, national radio and television expert guest and host of the weekly “Ask Beatty Show” on the Progressive Radio Network. She has a private practice in NYC and East Hampton.