Oct 25, 2022 - Health

Axios Finish Line: Lonely America

Illustration of a lone rocking chair in a strip of light.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Loneliness in America is widespread — and it's a public health problem.

  • By the numbers: More than 1 in 3 Americans are lonely, per a Harvard study. That rises to 61% when looking at younger people, and 51% among mothers with young kids.

Why it matters: It's not just a feeling. Loneliness has real consequences for your health and can shorten your life.

  • Stunning stat: One analysis likens the negative health effects of loneliness to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

🖼️ The big picture: The pandemic spotlighted — and worsened — loneliness in America.

  • It hit older adults who had to isolate themselves to protect their health, kids who stayed home from school and young professionals who moved back home to live with parents.

But even the most connected people, with seemingly robust social lives and networks, can be quite lonely. It's more about the quality of our relationships, experts say.

⚖️ The stakes: Research has linked loneliness to mental health conditions, such as depression and dementia, as well as physical ailments, such as high blood pressure and obesity.

  • "The human brain, having evolved to seek safety in numbers, registers loneliness as a threat," the New York Times’ John Leland writes.

What to do: Loneliness is a macro problem, but it's got some micro solutions — and we can all play a part in alleviating loneliness around us.

📞 One of the most effective interventions for loneliness goes back to basics: Pick up the phone.

  • But just calling isn't enough, says Maninder Kahlon, a professor at the University of Texas' Dell Medical School, who studies loneliness and examined the effect of phone calls in a recent study. "Don’t talk. Ask questions; let them talk."
  • "People feel good and connected when what they have to offer is seen as valuable and interesting."
  • "And don't worry if someone doesn't talk that much," she says. Even the fact that they picked up the phone is a sign they're seeking connection.

The bottom line: If you haven't heard from a family member or friend in a while, dial 'em up — and listen. You might brighten their day, week or even month.

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