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Loneliness is the New Smoking

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

When is the last time you spent quality time with friends during the work week? Do you prioritize in-person human connection? Sure it feels good to spend time connecting with people we care about, but does it matter for our health? Yes! The risks associated with feelings of loneliness and social isolation are comparable with well established risk factors for mortality such as physical inactivity, substance abuse and more. The impact loneliness has on mortality is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. Yep, you read that right. Loneliness might be the ‘new smoking’. Loneliness is predicted to reach epidemic proportions by 2030, it’s a public health crisis. Last year, CIGNA surveyed 20,000 US adults and found:

• 1 in 2 reported sometimes or always feeling alone.

• 1 in 4 rarely or never feel as though there are people who really understand them.

• 2 in 5 sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

• 1 in 5 report they rarely or never feel close to people

• Generation Z (18-22) is the loneliest generation.

How did we get here? Affluent nations have higher rates of individuals living alone and this number is increasing. Our society values individualism and we are moving farther and farther away from the tight knit community structure of previous generations. Social media is not helping. Social media displaces more authentic experiences and can facilitate feelings of exclusion. As any of us who us social media know, being exposed to idealized versions of people’s lives can lead to feelings of envy and a distorted belief that others live better and more successful lives than we do. Social media use has increased dramatically in the past 10 years.

Humans have an instinctive need to belong, this need is as basic to human functioning and survival as the need to obtain food, water and shelter. When this need is not satisfied the internal reactions range from physiological, to neurobiological, to psychological. The impacts of social isolation on our physiology include a reduction in sleep quality, increased risk of depression, HPA axis dysregulation and adverse cardiovascular outcomes.

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University found that having limited face-to-face social contact nearly doubles someone's risk of having depression. Interestingly, participants who made the effort to regularly connect with family and friends in person were much less likely to report symptoms of depression, when compared with participants who only texted, emailed, or spoke to friends and family on the telephone.

We need in-person human connection and support for optimal health. Too often we treat human connection as an indulgence instead of a necessity. Spend quality time with your spouse, walk around a lake with your friend, stop and chat with your neighbor - your health depends on it.


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