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US surgeon general says loneliness should be addressed as a health condition

Vivek Murthy

A US surgeon general has linked loneliness with conditions such as diabetes, heart attacks and depression saying being isolated increases the risk of health concerns.

Vivek Murthy is encouraging public officials to address loneliness similar to serious matters such as obesity and drug abuse saying it can lead to people turning to crime and in severe cases premature death.

“Right now, millions of people are telling us through their stories and statistics that their tank is running on empty when it comes to social connection,” he said.

“So bottom line is this has to be a public health priority that we consider on par with tobacco, with substance use disorders, with obesity and other issues that we know profoundly impacted people’s lives.”

Murthy has previously gone public with his own experiences being lonely, he has seen a surge of reasons as to why a growing number of people feel alone, pointing towards social norms, built environments and technology.

Studies in the US showed between 2003 and 2020 the time an average American spent by themselves increased by 24 hours a month whilst the time they were in the company with others decreased by 10 a month.

Murthy said the advent of increased moves in cyber interaction, such as home delivery apps, is making thousands of people cut off from the outside world.

“It’s a normal part of the human experience and loneliness, in many ways, is like hunger or thirst,” the surgeon general explained. “It’s a signal our body sends us when we’re lacking something we need for survival.”

He went on to support remote working saying not going into the office is allowing more time for staff to be with their family and loved ones at home.

Murthy believes the increasing rise of xenophobia could be traced back to isolation. 

“There’s a very simple reason: it’s hard to hate people up close,” he said. “But when we don’t know one another, then we fall prey to the caricatures that people put out about groups that disagree with us.”

Murthy suggests a number of ways individuals, businesses and public officials can address the loneliness crisis - tracking social connection through research, prioritising social connection at work and launching community programs to bring people closer together.

After going public with his own loneliness last weekend Murthy has heard from others who are feeling isolated.

“A lot of people that I encounter, all across the country and even around the world, are craving authenticity, they want to be able to be open with other people, they want other people to be open with them, but it can feel scary to do so,” he said.

“We have to recognize that part of that involves being able to show up as ourselves, being able to take a bit of a risk in sharing with other people, but also in listening to others and asking them how they’re doing and actually waiting, you know, for an answer.”

[ The Kaiser Family Foundation stresses a lack of interaction can lead to dementia, anxiety and depression. ]

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