The epidemic level of loneliness has warranted the emergence of the issue as a serious American public health hazard.
Sixty million people currently suffer from loneliness that is both chronic and severe enough to be a major source of unhappiness, according to John Cacioppo of the University of Chicago’s Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.
Cacioppo, the author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, defines loneliness as “perceived social isolation, even if not isolated.” The difference between what someone desires from social relationships and the perception of those relationships is critical. Put another way, loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the quantity of relationships.
We are living in the age of loneliness. In the U.S., it is estimated that one in five suffers from persistent loneliness. While we are more “connected” than ever through social media, this so-called relationship enhancement technology further distances us from the intimacy and warmth of personal contact.
Contact relegated to clicks, texts and phone messages may assuage the self-imposed requirement to stay in touch. However, such contact is no substitute for our tactile and social needs. No other age group feels the searing ache of loneliness more than those ages 60 and older.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the percentage of older Americans who said that they regularly or frequently felt lonely fell somewhere between 11 and 20 percent. That number is 43 percent currently, according to a recent study from the University of California, San Francisco.
The same study reported that two-thirds of older adults reporting loneliness were either married or living with a partner of some kind. This finding lends credence to the belief that what truly matters is not the number of relationships one has — but how meaningful those relationships are.
In her blog on loneliness, Wendy Salkin, a Harvard University doctoral candidate, reflects a line from Bob Dylan’s “Marchin’ in the City:” Loneliness got a mind of its own / The more people around the more you feel alone.
Why are older adults so lonely? “They are lonely because they are alone,” says T. Byram Karasu, chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. This loneliness has sounded the public health alarm. Social isolation and feelings of loneliness increase a person’s chance of premature death by 14 percent; that is nearly double the risk of early death due to obesity.
Put another way, loneliness is more closely associated with the quality than the quantity of relationships.
In 2015, the American Journal of Public Health reported that chronic loneliness is a contributor to health care use and the cycle of illness. What is truly startling: older adults are seeking medical services to meet their needs for “interaction and interpersonal stimulation.” In the United Kingdom, primary care physicians reported that one in five patient visits stemmed from patient loneliness.
Given our increased awareness that loneliness profoundly impacts us psychologically and physically, do we each have some moral obligation to ensure that others do not experience such social isolation?
“Over a given period, people who have strong ties to family, friends or coworkers have a 50 percent greater chance of outliving those with fewer social connections,” says CNN medical correspondent and neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta. “If our relationships can have such an effect on our overall health, why don’t we prioritize spending time with the people around us as much as we do exercising and eating right?”
More than a half-century ago, German psychoanalyst Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was one of the first to examine social isolation from an empirical perspective. She wrote that the “naked horror” of loneliness shadows our lives because the longing for intimacy is always with us.
“There is no human being who is not threatened by its loss.”