Around 28 percent of older Americans live by themselves as of 2017. Living alone isn’t a bad thing, if anything, it shows that older people are aging healthily enough to do so. However, being alone can lead to being lonely—the feeling of disconnect from others. That is a serious health problem.
“Loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity,” Dr. Douglas Nemecek, MD, of Cigna. He was the lead on a survey that found that nearly half of Americans report feeling lonely or isolated at least sometimes.
Loneliness isn’t something that only impacts mood; it takes a physical toll on your health. Loneliness increases your risk of early mortality, heart disease, inflammation, Alzheimer’s and your chances of getting a cold. These are just some of the many ways loneliness damages the body.
Former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, called loneliness an epidemic saying, “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.” The American Psychological Association believes that the loneliness epidemic is a threat to public health that exceeds that of obesity.
Digital friendship is not enough. The internet has not cured loneliness; it’s boosted it. We might think that young adults would be the least likely to be lonely as they have grown up in a connected world. But, people born in the ‘80s onwards are the loneliest group as well as being the most digitally savvy. Loneliness — that feeling of disconnect from others — can come from work stress, bad sleep schedules, no time with family or socializing with friends or too little quiet time. Social media can exacerbate that feeling, perhaps because you are only seeing the surface of a friend's life and not interacting with them on any meaningful level.
You don’t have to be alone to be lonely. Married people and people who live with family or in a group can still be lonely. Despite the name, it’s not always about being alone. There are physical symptoms of loneliness that you might have written off as being under the weather. Being constantly tired, or always sick or uninterested in going out of the house can all be signs of loneliness.
There is some good news though. Loneliness can be fought without drugs. Socialization can stop or lessen loneliness. People can reach out and connect to friends over the phone or arrange to see someone they haven’t seen in a long time. You can use the site Meetup to find groups of people with similar interests to yours, or within your age range, to spend time together in person. There are also ways to be out in your community: call your local community center and see if there are ways to get involved. There are book clubs, churches, local causes that you can help!
Cultivate new friendships and reconnect to your friends and family. It’s important to stand up for yourself and your health. Speak to a friend or a doctor; reach out for help.