America has a loneliness epidemic. Here are 6 steps to address it Lacking connection can increase the risk for premature death to levels comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General.

America has a loneliness epidemic. Here are 6 steps to address it

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It's well documented that smoking cigarettes boosts your risk of dying early. So does drinking too much alcohol or leading a sedentary lifestyle. But there's one thing doctors have determined can be even worse for your expected lifespan than any of those things - a lack of social connections, being alone. And a new advisory out today from the surgeon general says Americans are suffering an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. And those feelings can take a real and measurable physical and mental toll. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is here with me now. Welcome.

VIVEK MURTHY: Thank you so much, Juana. It's good to be with you.

SUMMERS: So you issued an advisory meaning that you have deemed that loneliness is a public health challenge requiring immediate attention. So I just want to start by asking you to give us a sense of the scope. How widespread is this feeling of loneliness among people across this country?

MURTHY: Well, Juana, this is a public health concern I'm deeply worried about. It turns out that 1 in 2 adults report measurable levels of loneliness. And the group that's actually most lonely in our population are actually young people, despite how connected they may be by technology. And I'm worried about this from a public health perspective because it turns out that being socially disconnected has real consequences for our health. It increases our risk of depression, anxiety and suicide, but it also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, of dementia, stroke and premature death.

SUMMERS: Do you have a sense of why people, and so many people, are feeling this way? What is causing this?

MURTHY: That's what's so important for us to talk about. Think about the fact that in the last few decades, we've just lived through a dramatic pace of change. We move more. We change jobs more often. We're living with technology that has profoundly changed how we interact with each other, how we talk to each other. And we just went through a pandemic as well. But I think it's important also, Juana, to recognize that most of this struggle is happening silently. They worry that saying, I'm lonely, is like saying, I'm not likable. And I know this because I felt that at many times in my life. You are not the only one. This is a common human condition. And you are as worthy of human connection as anyone else. And that's our goal here - is to build a society where we all feel deeply connected.

SUMMERS: Your advisory points out that people of all ages are spending less time in person with their friends compared to two decades ago. But it also points out that that trend is particularly true for people in their teens and 20s. Why is that?

MURTHY: Well, we know that young people spend a lot of time online. You know, all of us do. That is time that's taken away from in-person interaction. And I think that's had a real consequence for the mental health of children because we know that in-person interaction is what we have evolved for over thousands of years. We've learned - evolved to interpret not just the content of what someone's saying but also the sound of their voice and their body language. And when we lose a lot of that in text-based interactions, then that impacts the strength of the connections that we can form.

SUMMERS: I can't help but think about the teenagers in my life as we're having this conversation who spend a lot of time on their phones, to be clear. But they talk about the friendships that they've made, the people that they encounter who share their interests that they may not have met at their school or hanging out in our neighborhood. I wonder, do you think that there is a place for that sort of connection, that online connection? Is there a way in which it could still have a positive effect for the health and emotional well-being of young folks?

MURTHY: Absolutely. You know, I think that technology, at the end of the day, is a tool. It's how we use it that determines whether it benefits or harms us. And it's also about how we design it. I think there are some ways in which technology can absolutely bring us closer together and allow us to communicate with people who we otherwise wouldn't be able to reach. What we need to protect against, though, are the elements of technology, and social media in particular, that seek to maximize the amount of time that our children are spending online at the expense of their in-person interactions.

SUMMERS: The remedy to this loneliness epidemic, as you point out in this advisory, is social connection, but it's a little less obvious how to bolster those connections. What are some of the ways that the advisory proposes that we can do that?

MURTHY: One has to do with strengthening the social infrastructure in our communities. So these are programs that community organizations may have to bring people together to help learn about one another. So we have to invest in and rebuild that social infrastructure.

But the other thing that we have to do is we've got to reform the digital environments in which we live. And this is about the decisions we make about creating sacred spaces in our life without technology. That could be time at the dinner table. It could be before bedtime, time in person with friends. We can make sure that when we are with others - that we are fully present and giving them our full attention without the distraction of devices. We can extend kindness to others, strangers we may encounter, you know, in the grocery store or in a coffee shop. And finally, we can look for ways to help others. Service is one of the most powerful antidotes to loneliness that we have. And I feel confident that we can overcome this challenge with loneliness and build the kind of connected lives that we all want.

SUMMERS: I'd like to go back, if I can, to that first bucket of solutions that you talked about, what you described as social infrastructure. These are things, in many cases, that are going to cost cities and governments money, and there is not new funding or federal legislation tied to this report. So how do you see us accomplishing things like this without that when many governments are, frankly, cash-strapped?

MURTHY: The reason I'm issuing this advisory is I want people to know that the consequences of social disconnection are quite profound. And they have a cost associated with them, too - not just a human cost but a financial cost in terms of increased health care costs and broader societal costs. So it behooves us to invest in building social connection financially, with our time, with our energy. And that's why I'm also working with and speaking to policymakers on this as well.

And think about also the fact that social connection can be a source of healing for society. Like, if I told you that there was a medicine that we could take that was freely available that could improve our mental and physical health and improve how we performed at school and in the workplace and how we came together as a society during difficult times and it was freely available, you would say, gosh, well, why don't we all take it? It turns out that's what social connection is. It's medicine that's hiding in plain sight. And it's what we need to take advantage of and to cultivate in this moment where too many people are struggling with loneliness.

SUMMERS: That's Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy. Thank you so much.

MURTHY: Thank you so much, Juana.

SUMMERS: If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIKI GYAN SONG, "LOVING YOU")

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