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A Crisis of Loneliness and Isolation

Americans are spending more time alone, have smaller social networks

May 03, 2023

The U.S. surgeon general has issued a new warning about the nation’s next public health crisis.

This week, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released a report calling attention to the rise of “loneliness, isolation, and lack of connection in our country.” Even before COVID-19, about half of U.S. adults experienced measurable levels of loneliness, Murthy said, and that challenge only has intensified during the pandemic.

“Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health,” Murthy said in a statement. “Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Key metrics:  The pandemic accelerated trends in social participation, with the average time spent left alone increasing about 24 hours per month from 2003 through 2020.
    • For young people, in-person time with friends has declined by nearly 70 percent, from roughly 150 minutes per day in 2003 to 40 minutes per day in 2020.
    • During 2021, nearly half of Americans (49%) reported having three or fewer close friends. Only 27 percent reported the same during 1990.
  • Health consequences:  Poor or insufficient connection is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and developing dementia for older adults.
    • Lacking social connection also increases risk of premature death by more than 60 percent, the report noted.
  • Cost of isolation:  Social isolation among older adults alone accounts for about $6.7 billion in excess annual Medicare spending.
  • Next steps:  The advisory includes six core recommendations to strengthen social infrastructure (parks, libraries, and playgrounds) and programs; enact pro-connection public policies; mobilize health care providers; reform digital environments; advance research; and cultivate a culture of connection.
  • Quotable:  “Given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection the same way we have prioritized other critical public health issues such as tobacco, obesity, and substance use disorders,” Murthy said. “Together, we can build a country that’s healthier, more resilient, less lonely, and more connected.”

The surgeon general advisories call attention to critical public health issues and provide recommendations. Previous advisories have addressed youth mental health and health worker wellbeing.

The latest advisory from the surgeon general is available online.