Sheep would prefer to eat sweet grass than be warned of a prowling wolf. And so too it is with us. There is a strong tendency to ignore much of what is unpalatable so we can continue just as we are.
There is a role in America called the Surgeon General. On the 2nd of May, Dr Vivek Murty, who occupies that role, published an advisory. The advisory was titled ‘Our epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation’.
This advisory was carried in newspapers all around the world and indeed our own Ryan Tubridy picked up on it and gave it extensive coverage over the following days. You may have heard or read something about it, but chances are you did not. Even if you did you may have considered it not of great relevance to you, as you have already a much too busy life. I am afraid though it impacts all of us.
Advisories are reserved for issues deemed to be significant public health challenges that ‘need the American people’s immediate attention’. The wolf caller and his extensive team of experts have seen the wolf a prowling.
The report finds that about half of adults in the United States reported experiencing measurable levels of loneliness. Perhaps so, but we may think that it is no big deal. Not so, he says. The practical physical consequences of poor connection can be devastating, including a 29% increase in the risk of heart disease, a 32% increase in the risk of stroke, and a 50% increase in the risk of developing dementia in older adults. We then add to this the extensive human suffering that it entails, and to that the loss of productivity, opportunity, community engagement and resilience. Worse still, while the older groups are heavily affected, they are not in fact the worst affected by the decline in social connection that has been ongoing now for decades. Our children, and our grandchildren are becoming less socially connected at the fastest pace. Social networks are getting smaller, and the levels of social participation are declining, and dramatically so since the turn of the century.
We may think that this affects our society but not us directly. We may never feel lonely, we may only wish that things would slow down so that we could. But the surprising finding from the meta-analysis of all the relevant research carried out in the English-speaking world, regardless of whether people report that they are feeling lonely or not, as we become more isolated the risk to our wellbeing increases just the same. Indeed, we may be at greater risk if we do not feel lonely. Those that are lonely may be motivated to act. It is hard to understand why this is the case. I would like to see more research on this. Perhaps an element may be that we are not as good at looking after our own interests as we think we are. We may need a friend to tell us to go and get that lump checked, or to recognise that our lifestyle has become unhealthy. Perhaps a friend persists in pointing out to us that health and wellbeing is of greater priority than that report with the looming deadline. Perhaps we need a friend to pull us out of ourselves and to broaden our perspective. Research suggests that 90% of those that do not report loneliness or are objectively not isolated have at least three close friends.
Our own longitudinal study being carried out in Trinity College shows similar effects occurring in Irish society. What then is going on in western societies?
Dr Murty refers to the huge impact of the emergence of social media. He is not dismissive of its benefits. He insists though that it is not an adequate substitute for in person socialisation. Other factors include ageing populations, smaller families, less marriages/partnerships, and more choosing to live alone. Consequently, many have less informal supports in times of need.
It is significant too that Dr Murty points to less community involvement. Membership in organisations ‘that have been important pillars of community connection have declined significantly in this time’. He indicates that following decades of research, the cumulative evidence shows that higher levels of social connectedness suggest better community outcomes, ‘ranging from population health to community safety, resilience, prosperity, and representative government, while lower levels of social connectedness suggest worse outcomes in each of these areas. These studies establish that social connection is vital not only to our individual physical, mental, and emotional health, but also to the health and well-being of our communities’.
Dr Murty goes on to make suggestions for a new national strategy to tackle the problem.
- Strengthening social infrastructure, which includes things like parks and libraries as well as public programs.
- Enacting pro-connection public policies at every level of government, including things like accessible public transportation or paid family leave.
- Mobilizing the health sector to address the medical needs that stem from loneliness.
- Reforming digital environments to “critically evaluate our relationship with technology.”
- Deepening our knowledge through more robust research into the issue.
- Cultivating a culture of connection.
While these are suggestions for national government intervention, in my opinion, it is the more local level that will matter most. It will be whether we ourselves decide to prioritise engagement with others, and crucially whether we decide to support, engage with, and build up our community organisations. We will need to do so to have any realistic prospect of reversing this worrying trend and its effects, that I think, are also already apparent in our country.