Loneliness: A Silent Foe that Shortens Life and Weakens Community

Loneliness: A Silent Foe that Shortens Life and Weakens Community
Posted on 06/01/2018

By Brian Zehnder | Utah State Senator

What is our fastest-growing public health problem?zehnder

Heart disease? Obesity? Tobacco use? Opioids?

Our former surgeon general, Vivek Murphy, says it is loneliness. “During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness,” Murphy wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2017.

We’ve thought of loneliness as a social problem. Now, we find that it’s not just bad for our cities, it’s a real health and safety threat.

Weak social connections can shorten a person’s life by 15 years — roughly the same as smoking 15 cigarettes per day, noted a groundbreaking study by Brigham Young University in 2010. Research from the American Psychological Association, looking at more than 70 studies and 3.4 million people, found that social isolation can be more harmful to our health than obesity. For some, it can kill.

More than 42.6 million adults over age 45 suffer from chronic loneliness, according to an AARP survey. More than a quarter of the U.S. population lives alone, and more than half are unmarried. We are seeing the same trends in Utah. Living alone doesn’t mean you aren’t connected per se. But the studies are showing linkage, just like we know that people who are overweight tend to have more health problems such as Type II diabetes.

Finally, and sadly, we’re finding that loneliness has an effect with health and safety in our schools. Young people compare themselves to others on social media. Others may feel lonely if they're struggling to fit in after moving into new homes or schools.  As more of our youth are isolated, we see higher rates of suicide across the country. 

What help is available?

For older Utahns, the AARP Connect2Affect tool can help (www.connect2affect.org).  Simply take an online survey, and the results can let you know your risk, as well as direct you to resources in our zip code.

For our youth, the Hope Squads (www.hope4utah.com/hope-squad) is a peer-to-peer program to prevent youth suicide, now in over 300 Utah schools. Students are trained to recognize warning signs in depressed or suicidal peers and can report those signs to an adult. Also available is the SafeUT Crisis Text and Tip Line, a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program. (www.safeut.med.utah.edu)

If we look at social interaction as a habit, we will find not only that we are in better shape, but also in a healthier community. As we exercise, eat our veggies and refrain from smoking, so too can we bring a meal for an elderly neighbor, call a dear friend, or take the neighborhood kids on a hike. Reaching out heals and deepens relationships. We are wired for strong bonds with others. I suspect it’s somehow part of our DNA.

Let’s find ways to connect. Our lives—and our community—depend on it.

Brian Zehnder is a family physician and represents District 8 — Cottonwood Heights, Midvale and Murray — in the Utah Senate. He can be reached at bzehnder@le.utah.gov.