The Current20:35Loneliness as bad for you as smoking, says WHO
Top health officials say loneliness is as bad for your health as smoking, but one doctor warns that the stigma around feeling lonely still stops people from reaching out for support.
“Just like thirst is a signal you need hydration, loneliness is a signal you need … human connection,” said Dr. Jeremy Nobel, a lecturer at Harvard Medical School and author of Project Unlonely: Healing our Crisis of Disconnection.
“Why is it we’re guilty and ashamed about being lonely, where we don’t feel that way about being thirsty?” he asked The Current’s Matt Galloway.
Last week the World Health Organization designated loneliness as a “global public health concern,” appointing U.S. surgeon general Dr. Vivek Murthy to lead an international commission to tackle the problem. Research has shown that loneliness is as bad for people’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In a talk he gave at Yale last year, Murthy said he wants to raise the alarm about the shame people associate with loneliness.
“To say you’re lonely almost feels like saying you’re not likeable. Or even worse, that you’re not lovable. And I know this because that’s how I felt as a child when I struggled with loneliness over the years,” he said during the talk on Sept. 8, 2022.
Nobel said that the condition is “probably the biggest preventable risk factor” for mental health concerns including depression, addiction and suicidality.
But he pointed to research in older adults that shows high, chronic levels of loneliness also exacerbate multiple physical ailments.
“[It] increases risk of heart attack or stroke or death from either by 30 per cent; risk of dementia by 40 per cent; type 2 diabetes 50 per cent,” he said.
“So bottom line, we need to take it very seriously as a medical issue.”
Pandemic created ‘window of opportunity’
Nobel said there’s three main kinds of loneliness, all of which people can experience to varying degrees.
“First, there’s psychological loneliness. Is there someone I can confide in and tell my troubles to? Does someone have my back?” he said.
There is also societal loneliness, he added, where a person can feel systematically excluded due to factors like their race, gender or disability status.
“And then there’s a kind of existential or spiritual kind of loneliness where you wonder if your life has meaning,” he said.
Understanding the root causes of a person’s loneliness is important, he said, so that interventions can be tailored to address it.
Pandemic lockdowns became a cause of loneliness for many people, but Nobel thinks that period of isolation has offered “a little window of opportunity” to overcome the stigma.
“We were isolating in response to a common threat, not because we were flawed or unattractive or excluded,” he said.
“And so, yes we were lonely, but we didn’t feel embarrassed, ashamed or guilty about that loneliness. So we were able to talk about it.”
He thinks that helps to highlight why the stigma around loneliness is a social and cultural narrative — one that can be changed.
Making loneliness ‘a new vital sign’
Dr. Jacques Lee studies loneliness, and has seen first hand that people are reluctant to talk about it.
“Studies of loneliness often have difficulty finding people because, you know, nobody defines himself as being lonely,” said Lee, the inaugural SREMI research chair in geriatric emergency medicine at the Schwartz/Reisman Emergency Medicine Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
Lee said that many doctors will empathize with a patient experiencing loneliness, but often won’t consider it relevant to the diagnostic process.
He thinks loneliness needs to become “a new vital sign,” checked as routinely as blood pressure.
“I think we’re beginning to understand that it should be a priority. It must be a priority,” he said.
Nobel said that doctors can connect patients “to community-based opportunities in faith-based groups, libraries, schools where they can have the authentic interaction with other people.”
“If you feel you’re lonely, the most important thing to know is you’re not alone in that. Also, that it’s not your fault,” he said.