Experts warn COVID-19 is worsening loneliness epidemic in West
A growing epidemic of loneliness is affecting large swaths of the populations in US and Europe, exacerbated by isolation measures advised by health officials during the coronavirus pandemic.
Experts say the US needs to be addressing the massive public health concern now, particularly as widespread vaccination is still months away.
“During the time of the pandemic, at every level of the government, people should be sending this dual message that you gotta be safe — you’ve got to be concerned about transmitting disease — but you’ve also got to stay in relationships with people and here are ways you can do that safely,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
“We live in a society in which so many people feel marooned or disconnected,” he said. “It’s a symptom of societal failure.”
More than one-third of Americans surveyed in October reported feeling lonely “frequently.” Twenty-eight percent said their loneliness increased during the pandemic, which is consistent with findings from earlier polls.
In Britain, former UK Prime Minister Theresa May even appointed a Minister for Loneliness in 2018. She made the decision after a study that showed British children spend less time outside than prison inmates. During the social isolation of the pandemic, this loneliness has only compounded.
Loneliness is defined by researchers as the perceived gap between your desired relationships and your actual relationships.
“Isolation is thought to be more objective...whereas loneliness is that more subjective feeling,” said Brigham Young University psychology and neuroscience researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad.
She said the two often occur together, creating scenarios that are increasingly more common during coronavirus lockdowns when guidance includes asking people to stay home and away from other people.
The impact of loneliness goes well beyond how it feels. Holt-Lunstad’s research has shown that loneliness increases the likelihood of an earlier death by 26 percent. That risk increases with factors like social isolation and living alone.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic began in January of last year, Cigna, an American health services organization, released a study that found most Americans are considered lonely, and said that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Other research has shown that loneliness and social isolation can predict chronic disease and early death with similar accuracy to other risk factors such as smoking and poor nutrition.
Experts have also connected a lack of social connections to depression, domestic violence, child abuse, addiction and attraction to extremism.
Consequently, researchers for years have recommended standardized guidelines to address social isolation and loneliness, similar to those offered for diet and exercise. People with balance — in activities including family time, sleep, diet, exercise and work — tend to be less lonely.
That's not the case in some other countries. Japan and the UK both have government offices dedicated to addressing loneliness. Experts say that because the US is very “individualist,” loneliness has not been prioritized.
Thousands of Twitter users have made it clear over the past year they feel isolated. Multiple people started viral conversations by sharing their stories about living alone and feeling left behind amid the pandemic.
Loneliness is shown to bridge both circumstance and age groups. But the Harvard study from October found the highest rate of self-reported loneliness was among adults age 18 to 25 and mothers with young children, with more than half of both groups reporting serious or frequent loneliness in the past month.