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We can all help combat loneliness, surgeon general says in Seattle

Taylor Blatchford, The Seattle Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

SEATTLE — Loneliness isn't just a feeling. It's a public health concern, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said Wednesday in Seattle.

Murthy declared loneliness and isolation a national epidemic in May 2023, issuing an 81-page report outlining the problem and potential solutions. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, about half of American adults said they'd experienced loneliness.

Isolation has significant effects on physical health: It increases heart disease risk by 29%, stroke risk by 32% and dementia risk by 50%, according to the Surgeon General's office. A lack of social connection increases the risk of premature death by more than 60% — the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

"As somebody who sits in an office that for generations has focused on issues like tobacco and obesity, it made me realize that this issue of loneliness is a public health concern," Murthy said.

Murthy joined Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah for a discussion on social connection and loneliness, part of a state health department speaker series. Here are five key points from the conversation.

1. Modern society has evolved to make us less connected to each other.

 

For thousands of years, humans lived as hunters and gatherers who formed small groups with people they trusted, Murthy said. They shared food, took care of children together and looked out for one another's safety.

"We learned to live together and recognized that when we are connected with one another in trusted relationships, we actually do better. We have a much greater likelihood of survival," he said.

Not all of those elements still exist in our current society, he said. More people feel disconnected from community or don't feel like they're a part of others' lives in meaningful ways.

"We have become, in the grand scheme of human existence, quite lonely and isolated, despite the fact that we live in more densely populated parts of the world and despite the fact that we are connected through our devices and technology," Murthy said.

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