Banner by Taylor Siegfried

The Silent Epidemic

by Vaibhav Gupta

We’ve all felt it. The feeling that we are alone, that we wish our friends were by our sides, perhaps just to enjoy the quiet comfort of having someone near. We can all recognize this emotion as loneliness, it is ingrained in the human experience and seamlessly connects individuals from all walks of life. While loneliness is a common issue, prolonged loneliness is a lesser known but alarming issue. Loneliness is a nation-wide problem: it exists across generations, class, race, and income. It is referred to as a silent epidemic as it sweeps across the country without coverage by any major media outlet. However, it remains one of the most defining social issues of our times due to its widespread impact among Americans.

Dr. Ali, a specialist in mental health issues, defines loneliness as a “perceived social isolation, a feeling of not having the social contacts one would like.” While periodic loneliness is a key part of natural selection designed to increase our survival by forcing us to interact with one another, persistent loneliness differs from the more common or otherwise occasional loneliness. In fact, a study done by Cigna, with a sample of twenty thousand, highlights that in the last fifty years, loneliness has nearly doubled among the population. Of those surveyed, “one in four Americans shared that they rarely feel understood, and one in five people believe they rarely or never feel close to people” (Loneliness at Epidemic Levels).

As a result, the former Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Murthy, refers to this as a public health crisis since it affects a substantial number of individuals. The estimates vary, but according to the Economist, roughly 4% of the American population considers loneliness a major impediment to their lives (Loneliness is a Problem). This is roughly 13 million people, about the population of Pennsylvania. In order to understand the problem, one needs to view the societal trends that have spurred this epidemic to its prominence today.

One of the major contributions to the rise of loneliness is the significant growth in the number of single occupancy households. In the 1960s, 10% of households were single occupancy. Nowadays this number has risen to 40% (Loneliness is a Problem). This trend not only results in physical barriers but also psychological ones. A feeling of isolation often occurs as individuals living alone feel unfulfilled due to reduced social connections in their daily lives. According to Dr. Murthy, “Geographic mobility has increased, leading more people to move away from home and live separately.” While this trend has been continuing for decades, a study done by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics discovered that Millennials hold more jobs on average compared to previous generations in the same quantity of time.

The constant shift involved in moving and forming new social connections is one of the root causes of loneliness. Every time someone changes jobs, they forego some of their relationships and as a result lose a portion of their social network. In addition, the inability to “fit in” to a new community or environment can be exacerbated if the individual constantly leaves their residence in search of new opportunities. This not only worsens loneliness but has a ripple effect on that person’s colleagues who also lose a social connection. While this might not seem problematic at first, when compounded for the multiple “geographic mobil[ities],” the consequence is profound. Although this does not result in chronic loneliness for most individuals, the loss of social connection influences those affected by the loneliness epidemic.

Moreover, the decrease in the overall social network constitutes yet another major increase to the loneliness epidemic. Since 1985, “The average social network of Americans declined by over a third” (Loneliness at Epidemic Levels). A general note: the social network referred do not account for friends on social media sites but rather a system of deep interpersonal relationships. This figure illustrates a dark reality—that Americans are becoming more disconnected by each decade. The isolation results in a prolonged feeling of “not having the social contacts” required for a fulfilling life.

This increase can be clearly explained by a variety of technologies. In the Digital Age, nearly everyone is connected and nearly everything is automated. The deep interpersonal relationships that used to be present, now occur as someone is texting or snapchatting. The eye contact, facial expression, tone, and emotions that give our words meaning are lost through the “rapid transit” of technology. This is not to suggest that texting is bad, in fact it allows efficient communication; however, the use of technological interfaces fosters breakdown of human connection as individuals do not see the expressions of meaning (smiles, tone, body language, etc).

It is important to understand that the issue is too broad to be considered as a whole--there are some studies that affirm social media’s role in loneliness while other studies illustrate in nuanced methods the neutrality or benefits of social media. As a result, there is a correlation between social media use and chronic loneliness, but a causal relationship is not supported by the data. While these remain major factors, countless other components have a role in the loneliness epidemic.

Of those that were surveyed by the Cigna study, the majority of individuals that suffer from loneliness are members of Generation Z, followed by Millennials, and eventually the Greatest Generation. Youth and Elderly populations are disproportionately impacted compared to other age groups. According to Dr. Lunstad, a researcher at Brigham Young University, “Too often people think that this is specific to older adults…[it] can affect younger ages.” For young adults, the issue is complex. While youth loneliness is at its highest, with a loneliness score of 48 compared to the national average of 44, there are very few past records to compare with the contemporary data. As a result, it is too difficult to draw a clear conclusion, but several theories about the cause of the loneliness epidemic remain.

The most prominent is that young adults go through a natural identity change, shifting their focus from family-centric to peer-centric around the age of adolescence. This shift continues into adulthood. A few factors such as the rise of social media and technology affect this natural process, which tends to portray life events in an idealized setting rather than in a genuine one. As adolescents come of age in a period when they are focusing more on their peers, the “glorified version of people’s livelihood” on social media results in moral dilemma of missing out (Morgan). Again, when this is compounded for one’s entire social network, the feeling of exclusion and inadequate social contacts, as defined before, perpetuates loneliness. If unresolved, this may eventually develope into chronic loneliness.

As you come to understand the origins, you must be wondering what makes loneliness an epidemic, what are the consequences of loneliness? While certainly no one directly dies from loneliness, loneliness influences the mental health and wellbeing of individuals. According to Dr. Ali, “Loneliness is commonly correlated with mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and suicide.” Furthermore, prolonged loneliness is associated with cardiovascular problems such as hypertension, which can manifest as high blood pressure and heart disease.

Loneliness can also impact biology at the cellular level. Prolonged loneliness increases the body’s inflammatory response. In addition, loneliness fosters “suppressed activity, in a block of genes involved in fending off against viral infections,” which produces more recurrent illness (Loneliness on Cellular Level). Health complications resulting from loneliness may be severe, but steps can be taken to mitigate these side effects.

According to the Cigna Study, there are several initiatives that can be taken to reduce loneliness. However, these actions focus more on physical and mental well-being rather than emotional. The four main steps are sleep, spending adequate time with friends and family, physical activity, and appropriate time working. Individuals with enough sleep reported fewer loneliness scores; however, the most impactful factor of the four would remain spending time with friends and family. However, the study warns that, “Those who spend more time than desired with their family and those who spend less time than desired are on par with one another when it comes to experiencing loneliness” (Healthcare and Loneliness).

Moreover, as an increasing number of Americans work in offices, the attitude that one has towards their colleagues can vastly improve the conditions of loneliness. Cultivating relationships with colleagues rather than viewing them as competitors results not only in larger social networks but more meaningful connections in daily life. While these are the four best methods documented so far, countless others can help reduce the ill effect of chronic loneliness. Furthermore, to understand the issue holistically, an investigation of a narrative is paramount to understanding the onset and treatment of loneliness.

A case study of an elderly British women reveals the importance in addressing the current epidemic. Gillian is 70-year-old women, who was relocated to an extra-care accommodation, where care workers would visit her for only 20 minutes each day. As Gillian was removed from her home of over thirty-five years, she slipped into a ritual of isolation from her community. She recounts, “[I] did not leave the flat for a whole year…did not go out and meet my friends or make any efforts to interact with the other residents. I only saw a care worker for 20 minutes per day who was too busy doing his job. I had only the radio or the television for company.”

Gillian wanted to interact with her old friends and relatives but was unable due to her prolonged loneliness. It wasn’t until one day when Gillian was encouraged to attend a meeting called “Standing Together Groups,” which seeks to connect the elderly, so that they can share personal stories and form connections with each other. This nudge initiated by the Standing Together Group helped remove Gillian from her self-isolation and lonely state to where she could meet make new friends along with visiting her other old ones. Her story illustrates the ease at which an individual can slip into a chronically lonely state. Nonetheless, it also offers hope that by forming new connections, one can evade the spheres of loneliness and enjoy the experiences of day to day life.

Overall, the Loneliness Epidemic is a burgeoning one. It is still relatively unknown in the medical community but its rise across all demographics suggests that its growth will only accelerate. With the knowledge of its rise, prevalence, and health impacts, the epidemic can be tackled just like any other public health issue--with treatment focused on prevention and greater social awareness. It is time to reach out and take the first steps towards making new connections and ending the loneliness epidemic.