Epidemic of loneliness and isolation

[5 MIN READ]

In this article: 

  • The U.S. Surgeon General’s recent advisory sounds an alarm about the public health crisis of social isolation and loneliness facing America today.

  • A lack of social connection carries the same risk of premature death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It raises your risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.

  • Loneliness and social isolation can cause multiple health issues, including brain fog, low energy and unexplained aches and pains.

When Roy Orbison sang about “only the lonely” was he playing your tune? If so, you are not alone.

The U.S. Surgeon General recently released a Surgeon General Advisory raising a red flag about the epidemic of loneliness and isolation that’s affecting so many of us.

“Social connection – the structure, function and quality of our relationships with others – is a critical and underappreciated contributor to individual and population health, community safety, resilience and prosperity. However, far too many Americans lack social connection in one or more ways, compromising these benefits and leading to poor health and other negative outcomes,” said U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in the report.

“Everybody’s more depressed, more anxious, more overwhelmed,” says Angela Christiansen, MSW, LCSW, LICSW, a behavioral health provider at Swedish. “Right now, there’s a lot of that human connection missing from many people’s lives. And I think that has increased depression, anxiety, loneliness and overall stress.”

Social connection, loneliness and isolation

Loneliness and social isolation are often intertwined but they are not the same. Loneliness is an emotion prompted by feelings of being alone or separated in some way from other people. It stems from the perception that you’re isolated or different, not the number of people you interact with regularly.

Social isolation comes from a lack of social contact and limited interaction with others. You can be all by yourself and not feel lonely. You can also be in a room full of people and feel alone. When combined, the two can become a substantial threat to your mental, emotional and physical health.

According to the surgeon general’s advisory:

  • Loneliness boosts your risk of death by 26% and social isolation causes a 29% bump.
  • Lack of social connection carries the same risk of premature death as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
  • Having limited social connections raises your risk of heart disease by 29% and stroke by 32%.
  • Anxiety, dementia and depression often go hand-in-hand with social isolation.
  • Susceptibility to viruses and respiratory illnesses increases the more your social circle shrinks.

COVID’s contribution

The pandemic may be over, but its effects linger for many of us. Even before COVID, roughly half of all adults in the United States. reported experiencing measurable loneliness, according to the Advisory. Experts agree physical distancing and quarantines during COVID-19 made the already-challenging public health issue of isolation even worse.

“COVID pushed a lot of people from an office environment into a home office. That contributed to the loneliness and isolation people felt,” says Angela.

“COVID has definitely changed how we’ve been able to experience social connections,” agrees Angela. “My daughter graduated with her four-year degree after three years of college, which was great. And because it was all online, she did not get the college experience. She totally missed out on that.”

“That’s the reality for all of us right now. It doesn’t matter whether you were born in the pandemic or were an older adult when it began. COVID is a touchstone that affected all of us,” she adds.

Recognize the danger signs

Everyone feels lonely or like their best life is just out of reach now and then. How do you know when it’s time to do something about it?

“It’s worth considering when you notice a change in your habits. There are clues that lead up to isolation and loneliness, but often they are in our blind spots, making it difficult to identify and deal with,” says Angela.

Red flags include:

  • Brain fog.
  • Irritability and restlessness.
  • Low energy and excessive fatigue.
  • Self-doubt and lack of confidence.
  • Disrupted sleep or difficulty sleeping.
  • Changes in appetite or diet.
  • Unexplained aches and pains.

“If you think you may have an issue, ask yourself some questions,” she advises. “Are you ignoring texts and not returning calls? Have you noticed yourself disengaging? Has your diet or exercise routine changed? Are you showering regularly? Do you notice that you’re no longer brushing your teeth or putting on makeup? Are you shying away from established relationships with friends and family? Any of those could be warning signs.”

Create connections

Social connections don’t just give you something to do on a Friday night. They may actually protect your health and lengthen your life.

Try the following strategies from the National Institute on Aging to expand your social calendar and create a personal circle of support:

  • Start an activity you’ve always wanted to try or restart an old hobby. Take a class or step away from Google and actually go to the public library to do your research.
  • Take advantage of technology such as smartphones or video chat to increase your opportunities to communicate with others. Just remember that in-person chats are essential too.
  • Consider adopting a pet if you’re able to care for one. Even though they’re not human, pets can provide comfort and companionship.
  • Increase your physical activity by joining a group activity such as a walking club or exercise class.
  • Introduce yourself to your neighbors.
  • Join a faith-based organization that coincides with your beliefs to enrich your spirituality and meet others who share your ideology.
  • Participate in programs and events held in your community. Check the calendars of local agencies, including senior centers, public libraries and community colleges, to see what appeals to you.
  • Find a cause you’re passionate about and get involved in your community.

Taking the first step

“If you’re lonely or depressed or feel isolated, it’s hard to break out of that to take that first step. It’s easy to be overwhelmed or unsure of how to begin. Taking tiny steps will work in the long run,” says Angela. “Start with your primary care provider and tell them what you feel.”

When you talk to your primary care physician about how you’re feeling, don’t stop with physical ailments. Tell them how you’re doing in all aspects – mentally, emotionally and physically. A physician who knows what’s happening in your life is better equipped to make suggestions to improve your health. And that can make all the difference, according to Angela.

“One of the things I really love about Swedish and our behavioral health integration model is that we are more accessible,” she says. “We partner with our patients to make a plan that supports them so that we can prevent further mental health concerns.”

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Learn more and find a provider

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Helping kids face change and uncertainty

You are not alone: Finding ways to prevent suicide

Care for the body, mind and spirit

Support for mental wellness and commitment to ending mental health stigmas

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

Whether it's stress, anxiety, dementia, addiction or any number of life events that impede our ability to function, mental health is a topic that impacts nearly everyone. The Swedish Behavioral Health Team is committed to offering every-day tips and clinical advice to help you and your loved ones navigate mental health conditions.

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