Yes, loneliness really is as deadly as smoking — here's why

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a startling public health warning about America's epidemic of isolation

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 5, 2023 3:40PM (EDT)

Man standing alone in space (Getty Images/Yagi Studio)
Man standing alone in space (Getty Images/Yagi Studio)

The fabric of American society — our car-centric city design, our predilection for single-family homes and our self-reliant culture — seems engineered to engender loneliness. COVID-19 didn't help: during the pandemic, millions experienced real trauma due to the social isolation imposed during the lockdowns. Despite these easily observable realities, however, there nevertheless persists in our culture a tendency to view "loneliness" as an individual problem, not a public health problem (and therefore a social problem).

Yet attitudes on loneliness and its effect on us are slowly changing: indeed, United States Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently stated that loneliness is so damaging to humans that it is a health risk. And not a minor one: Murthy compared it to smoking cigarettes, something that research bears out.

Social isolation and loneliness are believed to shorten a person's life span by up to 15 years.

"We now know that loneliness is a common feeling that many people experience. It's like hunger or thirst. It's a feeling the body sends us when something we need for survival is missing," Murthy told The Associated Press (AP), referring to a recent 81-page report on the half of Americans who say they have experienced loneliness. "Millions of people in America are struggling in the shadows, and that's not right. That's why I issued this advisory to pull back the curtain on a struggle that too many people are experiencing."

recent study by the National Institute on Aging found that the health risks of being isolated for a lengthy period of time are equivalent to those of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. This is because social isolation and loneliness are believed to shorten a person's life span by up to 15 years, as well as place them at increased risk of not exercising well, having a poor diet, not sleeping well and needing to be admitted to emergency rooms and/or nursing homes. The Health Resources and Services Administration found that poor exercise and sleeping habits increase isolated and lonely people's risk of stroke by 32%, of heart disease by 29%, and of premature mortality in general by 26%.

Lonely people are also more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease, anxiety and depression. These statistics imply that there will be a rise in these health problems going forward, as single households doubled over the last 60 years and young people (ages 15 to 24) report spending 70% less time with friends as of 2020 (the year when the COVID-19 pandemic began) than they did twenty years earlier.

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"We know depression is strongly associated with adverse life events and circumstances — such as child abuse, divorce, poverty, loneliness etc."

Murthy is hardly alone in raising concerns about the health consequences of loneliness. A study published last month in the journal Psychological Scientists, the flagship journal of the Association for Psychological Science, found that the same part of the brain which is activated when a person feels hungry is triggered when that same person is lonely.

"In the lab study, we found striking similarities between social isolation and food deprivation," authors Ana Stijovic and Paul Forbes explained in a joint press statement. "Both states induced lowered energy and heightened fatigue, which is surprising given that food deprivation literally makes us lose energy, while social isolation would not."

More recently, scientists have pointed to a rise in mental health incidents during the period of the COVID-19 lockdowns, from the documented "rupturing" of students' social skills to regressing in their learning when they were not in school. The lockdowns' critics included Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a conservative commentator and Stanford University professor of medicine who co-authored a document called the Great Barrington Declaration which among other things criticized the lockdowns for harming the public's mental health. Conservatives were not alone in criticizing the lockdowns, with University of California, San Francisco professor of medicine Dr. Monica Gandhi telling Salon in December that "most public health officials by now have acknowledged that prolonged school closures in this country did harm to our children."

Loneliness and depression are, of course, caused by other outside factors besides lockdowns. A study published last year by the American Psychiatric Association challenged the longstanding view that depression is caused by a serotonin imbalance in the brain. One of the study's co-authors, Dr. Joanna Moncrieff, a professor of psychiatry at the University College London, told Salon by email that "we know depression is strongly associated with adverse life events and circumstances — such as child abuse, divorce, poverty, loneliness etc."

In a previous interview with Salon, Cat Moore — the Director of Belonging at the University of Southern California, and a co-author of the study linking loneliness to feelings of hunger — explained that "loneliness has more to do with a person's perception of whether they're in enough meaningful relationships. Psychologists say there are thresholds that vary for each person and they aren't related to the number of friends and followers we have on Facebook or the people we recognize when we go out and say 'hi' to [them]."

Moore added, "Loneliness is indicating to you that a social need isn't being met, like when you're hungry, your stomach tells you that you need food."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Aggregate Health Loneliness Mental Health Public Health Vivek Murthy