It is estimated that social isolation and loneliness in seniors account for an additional $6.7 billion spent in Medicare costs each year, mainly due to longer hospital and nursing facility stays. For people still working, missed work due to stress-related loneliness accounts for approximately $154 billion in the U.S. annually. With figures this high, you would expect the government to take notice, and it turns out they did.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, issued a public health advisory on the epidemic of loneliness and isolation and the healing effects of social connection and community. His report warned of the significant problems caused by loneliness and isolation and that people suffering from these things are 26-29% more likely to die prematurely. In addition, those people lacking social connection have the same likelihood of dying prematurely as someone that smokes 15 cigarettes per day! Dying of heart disease is 29% more likely, and dying of stroke is up to 32% more likely if one is socially isolated or lonely. Even a person’s immune system suffers from loneliness, making them significantly more susceptible to becoming seriously ill from viruses and respiratory illness.
So, with negative health effects on par with alcohol abuse and smoking, can guidelines be created in the same manner for the public to help stop this epidemic? In a May 2023 article published in The Conversation, an online news organization, Dr. Kiffer Card writes that there are things that we can do to keep from suffering from loneliness. Card, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, believes that much in the same way many governments issue guidelines on exercise and nutrition, there are seven keys that could be followed to increase health and happiness.
1. Have 3-5 close friends. Quality first. While having lots of friends is great, research has shown that everyone needs a few close friends that they can call on. People that have close friends experience significantly less loneliness and depression and are healthier in general.
2. Get 1-3 hours of social interaction daily. Studies show that most people only get approximately 34 minutes of socialization each day. Far less than the recommended 3 hours daily or 21 hours per week. Such interaction might include a phone call to a loved one or coffee with a friend.
3. Prioritize your strong ties. While we all need both strong and weak ties. Relationships with close family and friends should be prioritized over casual connections. We all need to feel love and validation, and those are things only those closest to us can give.
4. Diversify your network. Though we need to spend time with close family and friends, connection with people less close to us is still important. Make a point to chat with neighbors, make friends at work, and even talk to strangers standing in line at the store. Each type of relationship offers a different kind of support.
5. Recognize the risks of living alone. Studies show that people who live by themselves are at greater risk of having physical and emotional problems. If possible, have a roommate. If that isn’t possible, make it a point to strengthen relationships with friends and family.
6. Make friends. Maintain relationships with friends, renew old relationships, and make new friends whenever possible. People that are busy and connected socially do significantly better in battling loneliness than those who keep to themselves.
7. Make time for solitude. Solitude is different than isolation and is especially important for introverts. Though humans are social creatures and need time with others, we all need some time alone. Take time out of each day to meditate, pray, or simply go for a walk by yourself. It will help clear your mind and make your next social contact all the more meaningful.
In Card’s work as a social and behavioral epidemiologist, he studied how social connectedness and community ties have affected health outcomes in everything from HIV to substance abuse. He and his colleagues have noticed that socially isolated people experience up to a 48% increase in premature death, much higher than the U.S. report, and a 71% greater chance of reporting poor or fair health. Other researchers have reported similar findings and that these individuals are at greater risk of dying from certain cancers, diabetes, and heart disease. Harvard research from the longest-running cohort ever conducted strongly suggested that positive social relationships are the most important factor in determining health and happiness throughout the lifespan and that disconnected people were more likely to be sickly and live shorter lives. The bottom line is that to live our best lives; we need to make an effort to connect with friends and family and stay active socially. So, call a friend, grab a coffee with a co-worker, or take your daughter fishing as often as you can. You’ll be healthier, happier and will probably live longer.