: Loneliness is ‘one of the most serious, misunderstood problems facing America today’

Loneliness is back in the spotlight with a recent bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to create a national strategy to battle loneliness and provide $5 million in annual funding to better understand the epidemic of social isolation.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory declaring loneliness a public health epidemic, saying it was as dangerous for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Read: Loneliness is as deadly as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, says the surgeon general

Now, Murphy’s proposal calls for the creation of an Office of Social Connection Policy within the White House to develop strategies for improved social infrastructure and issue national guidelines for social connection similar to existing guidelines on sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. It would also provide $5 million in annual funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct or support research on loneliness and social connection.

“Loneliness is one of the most serious, misunderstood problems facing America today. It may not sound like a problem the government should care about, but I believe it’s irresponsible for policy makers to continue ignoring this epidemic,” Murphy said in a statement. “Loneliness leads to worse health outcomes and breeds political instability. It’s time for a real conversation about how as a society we can combat social isolation, promote connection, and strengthen communities.”

According to the CDC, more than 1 in 3 U.S. adults aged 45 and older feel lonely. Social isolation and loneliness increases the risk for heart disease by 29%, stroke by 32%, and dementia in older adults by 50%. Loneliness is also associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

Read: Suicide rates hit record, with biggest increase seen among older adults

Having a national loneliness czar is not unheard of. In 2018, the U.K. created a Minister of Loneliness to combat what former British Prime Minister Theresa May called as a “sad reality of modern life.” In 2021, Japan appointed a minister to tackle social isolation and rising rates of suicide.

Read: ‘There’s a lot of lonely people out there.’ Is loneliness killing you?

In addition to national efforts, states such as Massachusetts have been tackling loneliness and social isolation. 

The Massachusetts Taskforce to End Loneliness & Build Community, convened by AARP Massachusetts, was created in 2020 before the pandemic hit. It now includes more than 80 members representing more than 45 organizations, including state- and city-level governments, nonprofits, academic institutions and advocacy groups.

“The pandemic highlighted that lots of people are lonely. But we started even before that because there had been a change in the community and we were seeing greater isolation,” said Sandra Harris, state president of AARP Massachusetts. “It’s so hard to tackle because there’s a stigma attached to loneliness. People begin to associate it with mental health.”

“Even people who are not alone – such as in a room full of people – feel alone because they’re not making the connection they desire. We see people who were once very successful in their careers now retired at home feeling sorry for themselves – feeling alone and not wanting to say anything about it,” Harris said.

The Massachusetts task force has created programming on community TV to reach people who lack internet access to discuss ways to combat loneliness. It also has created community-resource tips called “It’s the little things” to remind people how to connect with friends and neighbors through small steps such as saying hi to neighbors or making a call to a friend.

But large-scale efforts are needed to tackle transportation impediments for older adults who lack cars, or the creation of parks and networks of outdoor space for communities, and building intergenerational housing for people of different ages to meet, Harris said.

Read: Having friends isn’t just good for your social life — it can also ward off dementia

“By putting loneliness on the national agenda and putting some dollars behind it, we might be able to behind to address the systemic structures that create loneliness,” Harris said.

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