U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has declared loneliness and isolation the nation's latest epidemic, calling it an urgent public health issue.
"Social connection is as essential to our long-term survival as food and water," Murthy said in a report released by his office.
He said social connection improves one's overall well-being and reduces the risk of premature death.
In his 81-page report, Murthy compared the effects of loneliness to that of smoking.
"Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity," he said.
Loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 26%, and isolation increases it by 29%, according to the study.
As a whole, the effects of loneliness and isolation can seep into society and can be felt in schools, workplaces and civic organizations where performance, productivity and engagement are paramount.
Communities that are socially connected have better population-level health and are even more resilient in disaster situations.
The pandemic exacerbated issues of isolation, as Americans were required to socially distance and public spaces shut down.
The loneliness epidemic is hitting young people particularly hard.
The time spent in person with friends for those ages 15-24 has reduced by nearly 70% over almost two decades, with COVID-19 accelerating the decline in social participation.
While Murthy is calling on communities to create sustainable changes, efforts can start at the personal level.
"Our individual relationships are an untapped resource — a source of healing hiding in plain sight. They can help us live healthier, more productive, and more fulfilled lives," Murthy said.
"Answer that phone call from a friend. Make time to share a meal. Listen without the distraction of your phone. Perform an act of service. Express yourself authentically. The keys to human connection are simple, but extraordinarily powerful," he continued.
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