US Surgeon General: Loneliness is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day

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Long ago, a typical evening in middle class America included children playing outside, adults sitting on porches (watching those children), people taking leisurely strolls, walking dogs or stopping to chat with neighbors. Today, there’s a chance (perhaps even a likelihood) that you might drive through a suburb some evening and not see any people. Okay, maybe you’d see motorists or an occasional person taking out the trash or getting mail out of a mailbox. The scenes of yesteryear, however, are but distant memories. And, for those too young to remember them, they are stories that might even seem fictional. The U.S. Surgeon General says that times have changed, and these changes have caused a loneliness epidemic in America.

Dr. Vivek Murthy (U.S. Surgeon General) says that loneliness has an adverse and often devastating effect on human health. Lack of quality, in-person connections has been shown to increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart disease and neurodegenerative conditions, such as dementia. People who are lonely often die prematurely. In fact, says Dr. Murthy, risk of premature death to those who are lonely is similar to the risk that people who smoke 15 cigarettes every day have of dying before their time.

US Surgeon General warns against social media

In recent decades, says the U.S. Surgeon General, Americans have drastically changed their lifestyles. People don’t stay in one place as long as they used to, nor do they keep the same job. In-person social interaction has been replaced by online connections. But, Murthy says, the problem with that is that the quality of an online connection isn’t the same as the quality of spending time with others in person.

Have you ever felt lonely in a crowded room?

Dr. Murthy says that loneliness does not always equate to “being alone.” There are many people who describe experiences where they have felt intense loneliness even though there were other people around them at the time. It’s important to spend time with others in person. However, what’s most important is to have meaningful interactions.

Sadly, the U.S. Surgeon General says that young people ages 15 to 24 have 70% less in-person interaction with friends as their counterparts typically did, years ago. It’s not good for their mental or emotional well-being.

Help combat loneliness by doing these things

Advanced technology and all the gadgets that add convenience to our lives should never replace the meaningful relationships we have with others. Here are a few ideas that may help people feel less lonely:

  • Encourage a return to our community parks and libraries. These are gathering spaces of old where much social interaction occurred.
  • Resist ideas that try to convince people it is safer or healthier or best to stay away from others. Humans are social beings and we are meant to be with each other in person.
  • Consider joining a class or a social group (like a club that plays cards) to gain more in-person social interaction time.
  • Serve your community with joy. Doing kind things for others is uplifting.

It might feel awkward or scary at first, especially if you have been feeling lonely for a long time. Don’t let that stop you, though. Just keep taking small steps toward more social interaction with others. It’s also a good idea to try to boost the relationships you have in your own household and extended family. And, if you’re not lonely but know someone who might be, think of ways to draw him or her out of isolation and into some quality, in-person interaction.

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