In these days of texting and Instagram and Facebook, sometimes it’s hard to remember that you can actually use your phone for a good old-fashioned phone call. Similarly, while you may feel connected to your friends thanks to those digital updates, it can be hard to remember to prioritize a catch-up session in person. Sadly, those facts of our modern lives are contributing to a growing loneliness problem in our country.
A new survey of over 20,000 people, conducted by healthcare provider Cigna, found that over half of Americans describe themselves as lonely. Half! And two out of five people say they lack companionship, their relationships aren’t meaningful, and they are isolated from others. A 2012 study found that between 20 and 43 percent of American adults over age 60 experienced “frequent or intense” loneliness. It’s not just the U.S., either— the United Kingdom announced they were creating a Minister for Loneliness within its government to address the situation.
While it’s certainly sad thinking about all the lonely people out there, the survey results also indicate a looming health crisis. Loneliness can actually impair health. It can raise levels of stress hormones and increase inflammation, which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, and dementia. It can also profoundly affect sleep. Researchers found that lonely people take longer to fall asleep and sleep for less time. In fact, loneliness might be a more significant health factor than obesity, smoking, exercise, or nutrition. A few years ago, researchers at Brigham Young University looked at most of the scientific research on the subject, and found that social isolation increases your risk of death by a shocking 30%. It is such a risk that health experts now consider it “a growing epidemic.”
Luckily, fighting loneliness is something we can all work on together. Set a calendar alert to call a friend, once a week take your grandmother to lunch, set up a regular walk with your mom, reach out to that pal you haven’t heard from in a while. You can even use your phone to do it.