Is loneliness really as bad for your health as smoking?

RALEIGH, NC (WNCN) – Public health leaders are raising concerns about a new epidemic – loneliness.

And they say it was almost certainly made worse by the latter – COVID-19.

But America’s leading physician recently made a strong claim about the lack of those interpersonal connections. Is he exaggerating the negative effect this can have on his health?

THE CLAIM: Widespread loneliness in the United States can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, according to Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States.

THE FACTS: It sounds hard to believe, but a local expert says it works.

“I definitely agree that loneliness is just as dangerous as smoking,” said Dr. Ed Fisher, professor in the department of health behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina.

Murthy’s claim first appeared in an 82-page report published earlier this month titled “Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation,” in which he says a lack of social connection can increase the risk of premature death “as much as smoking.” up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

Fisher, an expert on social isolation and loneliness, says that research begun in 1988 by researchers at the University of Michigan showed that isolation was as dangerous to a person’s health as smoking.

“And several studies have replicated these analyses, added more data over the last 35 years,” he added, “and we keep getting the same results – that being socially isolated is as lethal as smoking cigarettes.”

The surgeon general’s report says that loneliness increases the risk of premature death by nearly 30%, pointing to the correlation between poor social relationships and a higher risk of stroke and heart disease.

The report says technology has made the problem worse, with one study claiming that people who use social media for at least two hours a day are more than twice as likely as those who use them for 30 minutes a day to say they feel socially isolated.

The report didn’t include the data behind it, but Fisher says the way to do that is to study death rates — “the main marker we’re looking at,” he said.

Fisher says there are many ways to measure isolation, from counting the number of churches and social organizations a person belongs to, to asking more subjective questions, such as whether a person simply feels lonely or isolated.

“And people in the countryside kind of fight each other over whether it’s really loneliness or social isolation,” he said. “And the answer, of course, is both. But the important thing…is that loneliness, however large it may be, loneliness and isolation continue to show up as serious health risks, similar to smoking cigarettes.”

And, naturally, it got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools, churches and other social organizations closed their doors to slow the spread of the virus.

“Before COVID, everyone realized that this kind of social influence was important. COVID has shown us that they are REALLY important,” said Fisher. “COVID kind of shined a light on all of that and made us see it more clearly than we could.”

So beyond the obvious – getting people to connect with each other – what’s the solution?

“There is no magic pill anywhere in this landscape,” Fisher said.

He pointed to research by Duke’s Redford Williams, who found that people who had heart attacks were more likely to survive longer if they had at least one person they could talk to about personal matters or ask a favor.

“Have a confidant,” he said. “Have someone you can turn to, and if you do, remember their birthdays. Don’t go six months without talking to them. Cultivate your confidant.”

Another solution is perhaps less obvious.

“It’s not the number of friends you’ve had. It’s the variety of connections you have,” he said. “Being with a group of people gives us a safe space to talk about our concerns in other settings, so having diverse connections is really healthy.”

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