There is a loneliness epidemic in the United States, but there are simple ways we can address it.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Surgeon General released a report titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.” The report found that even before the COVID lockdowns chased us into months of isolation about half of U.S. adults reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness.
Loneliness brings with it considerable health implications. When a human lacks connection with other humans, his risk of premature death is comparable to someone who smokes 15 cigarettes a day, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. That translates into a 29% greater risk of heart disease, a 32% increased risk of strokes and, for older adults, a 50% increased risk of developing dementia.
Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy shared with NPR some of the reasons for our increased loneliness: “In the last few decades, we’ve just lived through a dramatic pace of change,” he said. “We move more, we change jobs more often, we are living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other and how we talk to each other.”
It’s no secret that people aged 15-24 have 70% less face-to-face interaction with friends than other age groups. Murthy notes that the number of connections you have with other people is not as important as the quality of those connections and high-quality connections require regular face-to-face interactions.
I suppose, too, our isolation is a result of our economic success that allows many people to live alone. I always loved when elderly family members, most of them now gone, told me stories of growing up during the Great Depression. Their houses in the 1930s were filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins because many families were unable to afford their own home. Today, the reverse is true. Many people are alone far too often. Many are socially impoverished.
So what can we do about it? The Surgeon General’s advisory suggests we embrace a culture of connection that includes everything from strengthening social infrastructure by increasing public activities at parks and libraries to studying and reforming our digital environments to address the effect social media is having on our well-being.
It’s important for government to play a role in curbing this public-health epidemic, but it is even more important that individuals step up. We can reach out more often to elderly neighbors who live alone, dropping by for a visit or to drop off a meal — or inviting them to participate in family functions, such as summer barbecues.
One friend of mine loves to cook, and he and a few other friends make dinners once a week that they drop off to a growing list of mostly elderly people who live alone.
But here’s another solution: do what I did and get a pet. During the pandemic many people took pets into their homes. Regrettably, as some went back to work they decided they no longer wanted their dog or cat and turned them back into a rescue — so many pets are available and eager to come home with you.
These wonderful creatures fill homes with laughter and joy and, according to Time, science says they are good for our health — and taking the edge off of loneliness. My 2½-year-old yellow Labrador, Thurber, certainly has brought added joy to my life! If you decide to adopt a pup, be sure to send me a photo.
Copyright 2023 Tom Purcell, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Purcell is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Email him at Tom@TomPurcell.com.