Dr. Ken’s Corner: Loneliness Reaches Pandemic Levels

Loneliness is a public health issue — widespread, pervasive, rife, and rampant. Making matters worse, Americans are getting lonelier — increasing from 54% in 2018 to 61% in 2019 (USA Today, January 23, 2020). “Loneliness is a growing concern in healthcare as it can compromise both mental and physical health,” said Dr. Doug Nemecek, chief medical officer for behavioral health at Cigna. He points out that loneliness increases the risk of death by the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

“The younger, the lonelier,” says Dr. Nemecek. “Nearly eight in 10 Gen Zers and seven in 10 millennials reported being lonely, vs. half of BabyBoomers surveyed.” The gig economy and working from home are said to be a big part of the problem. Social media also has to share some of the blame: “Someone who is lonely may be more connected to his or her phone,” says one survey.  Young adults who logged in for more than two hours per day or over 50 times per week were found to be much more socially isolated than individuals who logged in only a half hour per day or nine times weekly.  The survey also discovered surprising differences along racial lines: “Hispanic respondents were the loneliest, followed by those who listed their race as ‘other,’ then black respondents.”

Another surprise: People in sports and entertainment were found to be among the loneliest. Senior executives reported that they, too, were prone to be ing lonely. But, according to the Harvard Business Review, the loneliest people by occupation are doctors, lawyers, and engineers. The happiest? Middle managers with long tenures.

As would be expected, loneliness is particularly acute among seniors. Nearly one in three older Americans now lives alone — and the health effects are mounting. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, “An estimated $6.7 billion in annual federal spending is attributable to social isolation among older adults. Poor Social relationships were associated with a 29 percent increase in risk of coronary heart disease and a 32 percent rise in the risk of stroke.” Dementia, cognitive decline, and depression are also associated with loneliness in the elderly. “Authorities expect the financial and public health impact of loneliness to increase as the nation’s population ages.” It’s time for the healthcare community to recognize that loneliness needs to be treated as a major health concern. 

The U.S. is not the only country where loneliness has become a public health issue. Data from many other nations, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, suggest that there is indeed a global pandemic of loneliness.