The Epidemic of Loneliness


To connect to others is a biological need. It ties back to the idea that to be part of a group is adaptive to survival.


The Epidemic of Loneliness


The crisis of loneliness poses as grave a threat to public health as obesity or substance abuse. It cuts across generations and reaches around the world. Katie Hafner calls it “a quiet devastation” and the poet Emily Dickenson writes that it is “the horror not to be surveyed.” Millions of people live with sparse human contact and research tells us that lonely people are more likely to become ill, experience cognitive decline, and die early.

Being socially connected, on the other hand — as reflected by the size of our social networks, the extent to which we are involved with others, the quality of our relationships, and our perception that support is available when we need it — are all associated with longevity. A geriatrician, a psychiatrist, a neuroscientist, and a journalist look at the social and biological consequences of loneliness and consider what we can do.

Portraits of loneliness
Portraits of loneliness
Loneliness is a medical danger
We don't like to acknowledge loneliness
Does social media and other tech drive loneliness, or help to cure it?
What can we do about the epidemic of loneliness?

Portraits of loneliness

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Loneliness is the 81-year-old woman who celebrated her birthday alone — after speaking with no one for more than a week before that. It is the woman who turned down a telehealth service that would have provided a virtual house call with a physician, because the doctor’s monthly home visit was her only human contact.

Although especially common in the elderly, loneliness can affect people across the age spectrum, and both men and women are equally prone to it.

About one-third of US adults age 45 and older report feeling lonely. While the findings that 35 percent of midlife and older adults are lonely is unchanged from 2010, the population of lonely people over age 45 has grown by 5 million, from 42.6 million to 47.8 million, in the past eight years. (source: AARP)


Loneliness is a medical danger

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Geriatrician Carla Perissinotto was one of the first to publish in the medical literature about the health threats associated with loneliness. She followed 1,600 people out of a national Health and Retirement Study, over six years to see whether loneliness poses a risk to independence and mortality. It does: Feeling lonely results in a 60 percent  increased risk of functional decline and a 45 percent greater risk of death.

Loneliness is an aversive signal, much like thirst, hunger or pain.
John Cacioppo, University of Chicago psychologist

We don't like to acknowledge loneliness

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A stigma surrounds talking about loneliness, and it is intensified by ageism. “We want to ignore older people,” says Perissinotto. “We don’t want to talk about what it looks to not age successfully. We only want to hear about healthy aging.”

Dixon Chibanda says we should acknowledge the emotional discomfort of loneliness.

When you say hello to somebody, you don’t expect them to say, ‘I’m lonely’ or I’m isolated.’ I think that’s where the problem begins. We are not comfortable with statements that are emotionally loaded. The key problem is how do you undo that? How do you all become comfortable with that which is uncomfortable? As human beings, we naturally want that which is comfortable. As we interact on a daily basis, I think it is all about finding that equilibrium.
Dixon Chibanda

Does social media and other tech drive loneliness, or help to cure it?

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We’re not yet sure of the impact of technology on loneliness and social isolation. Holt-Lunstad reports a significant increase in the number of people who say they are lonely at the same time that social media became more popular, but we don’t yet know what is cause and what is effect.

Technology can be a valuable tool for making connections, but it offers no guarantee that it will relieve loneliness. “The power of human contact can not be underestimated,” Chibanda says.

Social media use among midlife and older adults has more than tripled since 2010. Now 42 percent report engaging in social media, up from AARP’s previous survey on loneliness, when only 13 percent used the likes of Facebook, Instagram and other platforms. Yet social media does not necessarily curb social isolation. As people use social media more, they report feeling more lonely, according to the [AARP] survey.

What can we do about the epidemic of loneliness?

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Audience members and panelists describe many strategies and programs to tackle loneliness, among them public spaces designed to give people places to go, intergenerational living arrangements, and peer-based programs.

The Friendship Bench project in Zimbabwe is a mental health intervention that makes use of “community grandmothers” while “cuddle lounges” in the United Kingdom offer the benefit of physical touch. In Australia, “men’s sheds” allow men to work comfortably together “shoulder to shoulder” on woodworking projects.

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Additional Information


Researchers confront an epidemic of loneliness

An article by Katie Hafner in The New York Times

Loneliness in older persons a predictor of functional decline and death

An article by Carla M. Perissonotto in the Archives of Internal Medicine

The Friendship Bench

The Friendship Bench uses problem-solving therapy delivered by trained lay health workers.

One in Three Seniors Is Lonely. Here's How It's Hurting Their Health

A 2019 TIME Magazine article written by Jamie Ducharme.

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