The Grapevine

Loneliness Is An Invisible Epidemic Affecting Physical And Mental Health

Caught up in daily routine, some people enter autopilot mode and fail to even realize they are experiencing a lack of connection in their lives. Loneliness has garnered the reputation of a modern, invisible epidemic across the world.

Aligned with the increasing popularity of smartphones and social media, much debate has ensued over how far digital connections can fight against or aggravate loneliness. Nevertheless, the problem is far from being a contemporary phenomenon, though it has changed in terms of meaning over time. It has been known to affect all kinds of people regardless of gender, race, or socio-economic status.

Former U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy explained that human isolation is, indeed, a growing threat and a public health problem. "It turns out that loneliness is associated with a reduction in your lifespan that is as severe as the lifespan you see with smoking 15 cigarettes a day," he said.

During his tenure, Dr. Murthy described meeting numerous middle-aged and elderly patients who were not only suffering from declining health but were also longing for human connection. "I found that loneliness was often in the background of clinical illness, contributing to disease and making it harder for patients to cope and heal."

Furthermore, the problem is not just limited to older adults. Findings from a recent study also suggested that loneliness in young adults was linked to an increased susceptibility to smoking, being less physically active, compulsive use of digital technology, and mental health problems. Such people were likely to have experienced bullying and social isolation when they were younger.

Unlike certain health disorders, loneliness can often be transient, not permanent. But problems arise when people adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with long-term, unresolved loneliness.

"Hence the term comfort food, which is better expressed as comforting food. We eat foods that make us feel good, and when we’re lonely, we have foods that distract us from feeling lonely." said relationship expert April Masini. In addition to poor nutrition, people may also feel inclined to stay indoors and not get physical activity or fresh air.

As a result, inflammation and stress can steadily increase, harming both physical and mental health. Hormonal changes (such as the increased production of the stress hormone cortisol) can put chronically lonely people at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, suppressed immunity, insomnia, weight gain etc.

The lack of social interaction, conversation or challenges can also result in a cognitive decline over time. Feeling isolated and disconnected, studies suggest, is often a factor in the increased risk of depression, Alzheimer's disease, and personality disorders. 

Loneliness affects different people in different ways, making it difficult for experts to recommend one-size-fits-all tips to fight it. But psychologist Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps explained that the first step for everyone is to acknowledge their problem and bring awareness to their own struggle instead of feeling shame.

To solve loneliness, it is important to take risks and even learn to enjoy solitude to some degree. One may consider activities like reaching out to old friends, talking to a therapist, going outside more often, volunteering or joining clubs, limiting sedentary behavior (such as long hours of internet use), adopting a pet, or more.