As the coronavirus pandemic slips into the rearview, the effects of the alone-virus epidemic continue to fuel mental and physical health woes.
The World Health Organization has declared loneliness a “pressing health threat,” with risks as deadly as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
“[Loneliness] transcends borders and is becoming a global public health concern affecting every facet of health, wellbeing and development,” African Union Youth Envoy Chido Mpemba told The Guardian this week.
Mpemba and US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy are co-chairing WHO’s newly formed, international Commission on Social Connection, a coalition of 11 leading health advocates and policymakers.
Their three-year mission is to combat the isolation plague accelerated by lockdown measures during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its announcement, WHO claims one in four older people suffer social isolation, while 5-15% of adolescents experience loneliness.
WHO’s new commission follows a new study by the University of Glasgow in Scotland that found that not socializing with friends or family may increase the risk of dying early by 39%.
Some 458,000 middle-aged participants were tracked for around 12 years, with about 33,000 deaths reported during the follow-up period.
The research, published last week in the journal BMC Medicine, found connecting with friends and family at least once a month to be very valuable, while surface-level interactions didn’t appear to cut the risk of premature death.
“When tackling problems like loneliness and social isolation, we need to assess these different dimensions both separately and in combination if we are going to identify and support those who are most isolated in society,” Hamish Foster, first study author and clinical research fellow at the School of Health and Wellbeing of the University of Glasgow, said in a statement.
For its part, the new WHO commission plans to “analyze the central role social connection plays in improving health for people of all ages and outline solutions to build social connections at scale.”
“Given the profound health and societal consequences of loneliness and isolation, we have an obligation to make the same investments in rebuilding the social fabric of society that we have made in addressing other global health concerns, such as tobacco use, obesity, and the addiction crisis,” Murthy said in a statement.
Studies have shown that perennially being by oneself carries the risk of anxiety, depression, poor immune function, cardiovascular issues, and even brain shrinkage.
The temporal lobe, occipital lobe, cingulum, hippocampus and amygdala were found smaller in people who had less social interaction.